This week saw a debate in Parliament on abuse and intimidation in elections. Some of the stories of racial abuse, violence and organised aggression were appalling. I have had my share of abuse, even death threats, but nothing on the scale of some of my colleagues. Some now carry panic alarms and have had to secure their offices and homes in a way you would not expect in our sort of society.
I have fought six elections in West Berkshire and the last was different from all the others. The candidates standing against me for the Newbury constituency were, in the tradition of West Berkshire politics, perfectly decent and straightforward in how they fought the election. I regret the negativity of some of their literature and social media posts but I can’t complain that it did me any harm (actually, quite the reverse). What was different was a level of intimidation of my supporters that was totally unacceptable. I am happy to state quite clearly that whilst I do think some of this activity was coordinated, I do not attribute that to any of my fellow candidates.
It was perhaps most manifest in the destruction of my campaign posters. Some might say, “this is all part of elections, get over it”. It’s true that every election sees some of this happening and it’s not always my posters that are defaced or ripped down. But this was different. It was organised and unpleasant. If people put up a poster on their private property and it is ripped down they feel intimidated. They are less inclined to take part in elections or to state, in a free and fair society like ours, which candidate they support. They might not put up a poster because they are worried about getting a brick through their window or verbal abuse.
And posters were only part of the problem. This election saw some unpleasant confrontations during street campaigning, the like of which we have not seen here before. All candidates need to be ruthless with activists or supporters who think that verbal abuse, aggressive behaviour and law-breaking have any part to play in our democratic process.
Over the years I have developed a thick skin and it takes a lot to intimidate me. That may well not apply to others and is stopping good people, from all political parties and none, from wanting to get involved in public life. That is something that should worry us all.