The Committee on Standards in Public Life published a report into harassment and abuse of parliamentary candidates on Wednesday. The report was informed by evidence from the 2017 Representative Audit of Britain survey, which is being administered by researchers from the Constitution Unit, Strathclyde and Birkbeck. Sofia Collignon Delmar and Jennifer Hudson summarise the evidence.
On Wednesday the Committee on Standards in Public Life published its report into harassment and abuse of parliamentary candidates, in response to claims of a frequently toxic and intimidating campaign environment during the 2017 general election. Claims of harassment have important consequences for democratic life in the UK and for the representativeness of parliament. Drawing on recent data from the Representative Audit of Britain’s survey of 2017 candidates, researchers from the UCL Constitution Unit, Strathclyde and Birkbeck provided evidence to the committee that shows the scale of the problem and the importance of the issue. They also put forward a host of potential recommendations to tackle intimidation and abuse.
In this blog post, we summarise the key findings which informed our evidence to the committee. Drawing on survey responses from Conservative, Labour, Liberal Democrat, SNP, Plaid Cymru, UKIP and Green candidates, we show who is more likely to suffer abuse, the most common forms of harassment, who candidates think is responsible for abuse and what can be done to prevent harassment and inappropriate behaviour during elections in the future. The total sample size is 964. This a response rate of 34% and can be considered representative of the party composition of the true population of candidates. The survey is still ongoing, but we do not expect the trends to change significantly.
Results show that 32% of the candidates who answered the survey suffered from some form of inappropriate behaviour during the 2017 general election campaign. The survey revealed significant differences between parties, with Conservative candidates statistically more likely to report having experienced abuse. Female candidates of all ages are also significantly more likely to report having experienced abuse than male candidates.
The most frequent forms of harassment include abuse on social media (24%) and inappropriate e-mails (19%). Thus, candidates are more likely to receive online than offline abuse and, fortunately, physical threats are rare.
Table 1: Candidates’ experiences of harassment at the 2017 general election
Harassment and abuse contribute to a toxic political environment which impacts on candidates emotionally. We asked candidates the extent to which they felt annoyed, concerned or fearful in response to any inappropriate behaviour they encountered: 74% of candidates find harassment annoying, a majority (56%) are concerned, and 31% say they are fearful.
Harassment and abuse has implications not just for candidates, but for those who work/volunteer for the campaign, for their families, and for public life more generally. Text from open-ended responses shows that candidates’ most worrying experiences of abuse are those that include references to their place of work, children and family. Candidates’ families, particularly spouses and partners, also feel threatened, and abuse has become a source of contention with family regarding standing for office.
We also asked candidates who they thought the perpetrators of abuse are. The data show that 33% of candidates report inappropriate behaviour by candidates or supporters of opposition parties. We also found significant differences by sex and party. Some 66% of Conservative candidates said abuse came from opponents, compared to 31% for Liberal Democrats and 29% of Labour candidates. Candidates also assign responsibility to other parties, social media companies and the press for the proliferation of abuse. Some candidates noted that parties’ use of aggressive rhetoric during campaigns, as well as aggressive and inadequate press coverage, contribute to the problem because they encourage abusers to act. Other candidates suggested that social media companies are partially responsible because they should do more to identify members that behave abusively. Respondents also commented that high levels of impunity allow this type of behaviour flourish and that the police should do more to stop and punish abusers.
Figure 1: Percentage of candidates reporting abuse by members/supporters of other parties
Finally, we asked candidates what should be done to address harassment and abuse. The actions and policies that were most frequently mentioned include maintaining the anonymity of candidates’ and agents’ home addresses and ensuring appropriate and timely responses from the police and political parties. It was also suggested that appropriate training on how to deal with harassment should be provided by parties and the police. However, for these actions to work, it is necessary to create a cooperative environment in which candidates, parties, the press, the media and civil society contribute to the development of constructive positive campaigns.
You can read the CSPL report on Intimidation in Public Life at this link.
About the authors
Dr Sofia Collignon Delmar is Research Associate at the University of Strathclyde, working on the Representative Audit of Britain project.
Dr Jennifer Hudson is Senior Lecturer in Political Behaviour at UCL and Lead Co-Investigator of the Representative Audit of Britain project.