The Jo Cox foundation has recently launched its Civility Commission and I’ve launched my campaign to stand as a Labour Councillor by signing up to make a pledge that I will always listen and treat my opponents with kindness and respect.
Aneurin Bevan, the great socialist and architect of the National Health Service called politics a “blood sport”, and he was not wrong. There is a general acceptance of that in the “cut and thrust” of the debate it’s almost inevitable that tempers will rise and jibes at your opponent are (within margins) permissible. But who decides on those margins and why is the language and tone so aggressive yet accepted as a given? Bevan was a great humanist, and his description was a critique, a critique that has gone unheard and has somehow become translated into an accepted excuse for poor behaviour – this is not what he intended.
A serious question
Politics is brutal, theatrical, pantomime, slapstick, comedy… I could go on. It bruises, and it stings. I pose a serious question now that I think every politician needs to ask themselves “How can we expect the public to engage with us in meaningful tolerant debate when the tone we set is so toxic?” It starts with us, politicians, to set a tone with each other and demonstrate what tolerate kind and compassionate debate looks like and why it’s better for everyone and promotes democracy.
I will put this simply, if we stop abusing each other we might be in with a chance of receiving less abuse ourselves. And it’s not just about being nice for niceness’s sake, which I do believe is important, its about raising the level of debate and promoting equity and equality.
Abuse and intimidation of elected representatives – including violence towards them – is according to the Jo Cox foundation one of the biggest threats to our democracy.
Good people are leaving and democracy is being undermined
Recently we have seen a surge in politicians standing away from politics and citing the ongoing onslaught of abuse and intimidation as becoming so intolerable they have needed to exit public life. Good people are leaving, and I fear we are moving to a political environment in which only those with the thickest skins will be left in a perpetual downward cycle of denigration of debate and democracy.
The abuse is widespread and extends from a national political landscape to the local level with 7 in 10 local councillors reporting experiencing abuse or intimidation in the last year according to the LGA’s 2022 councillor census. The survey goes further and highlights:
“The increasing level of abuse and intimidation aimed at local politicians is preventing elected members from representing the communities they serve, deterring individuals from standing for election and undermining local democracy”.
This is extremely serious and I’m certainly seeing fewer people coming forward to become councillors. So many local people have so much to give, they know their communities and what the needs are yet they fear stepping up. This fear is not foundless.
Fear of abuse is a barrier that prevents people from standing to be elected and this has serious implications for the representation we see in politics.
Women, disabled people, LGBTi communities and those from black and minoritised backgrounds receive disproportionate levels of abuse, this both prevents entry into politics, as if the barriers were not high enough, and promotes an environment where people need to leave to flee abuse.
My own personal experiences of being harassed and abused have had an impact and at times I do wonder why I put myself forward. Recent months have been tough, and I’ve been bullied, trolled, stalked, shouted at in the street while walking my dog – thankfully my grandchildren were not with me that time, but the fear lingers, what if?.
It is alarming that almost without exception this abuse has been from white middle class professional men, the very group that continues to dominate political life and discourse. Women have disagreed with me, challenged me but on not one occasion has a woman raised her voice, been threatening and intimidating or behaved in a way that has caused me alarm.
One woman told me recently while her husband was threatening towards me and I needed to ask him to step back due to his intimidation “He is an angry man”. Yes, he is and that’s not acceptable either for you, me or him. What are those feelings of anger doing to his health? In the long-term anger is unsustainable and leads to poor health outcomes, stress, depression, high blood pressure and I could go on. I hold on to this as I listen, calmly and with care.
I’ve experienced men yelling at men in the street telling me their wives don’t feel safe. Well I can quite see why, living with a man so apoplectic with rage, shaking with anger because he hasn’t got his own way doesn’t foster feeling of safety and well-being. I push that thought away, it’s both judgmental and focused on blame, that won’t help resolve this situation. I remind myself this person is hurting both emotionally and physically as I almost see their blood pressure escalating before my eyes. The reason they are so angry is they really care about the issue, and we need people who care enough to get angry to drive forward change.
How do I respond? With civility, with kindness and I try to understand what’s beneath the anger and the frustration. For many this is the failings of our civic society. The social contract is dissolving before our eyes and it’s scary. I’m out there on the streets or online and I’m a reminder of everything that’s wrong – it’s not personal – it’s the role I’ve taken on.
A broken system
So many people have so little trust in politicians and in public services generally and who can blame them? Twelve years of enforced ideological Tory austerity has brought this country to its knees. Our court and criminal justice system is broken beyond repair. Our cherished National Health Service, once the envy of the world, has ground to a halt with waiting times to see a GP, or rather get a telephone appointment now, around three weeks and rising .Our streets are filthy ,our housing and homelessness crisis shameful and our public transport system is patchy in provision and unreliable when its available.
The cherry on the top was Brexit and its false promises and running in parallel with this the ongoing state led rhetoric of pure unbridled hate towards the most vulnerable people in our world – those who are stateless, those who are homeless those who are fleeing war, torture and persecution.
We need each other
We need each other if we are to resolve the state where in. We need to listen, to see the world from other points of view and even if we disagree to find some common ground, consensus and compromise. We need to hear above the noise, to see beyond and underneath the mess and to somehow develop solutions that tackle the ongoing chaos, together. So that’s why during this election campaign and beyond, my pledge is civility and I’m starting with myself – will you join me?