Harassment and abuse of parliamentary candidates at the 2017 general election: findings from the Representative Audit of Britain

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.

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2017 candidate selection: more centralised and more representative?

The unexpected snap general election has caused the political parties to select candidates much more quickly, and through a more centralised process, than usual. Drawing on early data, Evangelina Moisi, Agnes Magyar and Jennifer Hudson suggest that both Labour and the Conservatives have used this opportunity to increase the diversity of candidates – in particular, female candidates – before local selectorates. 

Less than three weeks ago, Theresa May appeared determined to serve as an ‘unelected’ Prime Minister until 2020, having ruled out a snap election five times in the previous ten months. On 18 April she announced her intention to call a general election, citing a recent and reluctant change of heart. While May claimed the election would give her a stronger hand in negotiating Britain’s exit from the EU, there is little doubt that with the polls giving the Conservatives a sizable lead over Labour in England – and perhaps more surprisingly – in Scotland and Wales, she played a strategic hand.

In this blog, we explore how the parties’ are approaching candidate selection under ‘snap election’ conditions. Whereas selection normally takes place over the months and years preceding a general election, with a deadline for candidates to deliver nominating papers on 11 May, the parties have adopted ‘emergency procedures’ resulting in a highly centralised selection process. The consequent shift in power to the national party at the expense of local selectorates has not been without controversy. But early data suggests that both the Labour and Conservatives are using this opportunity to increase the diversity of candidates – in particular, women candidates – before local selectorates. As the parties increasingly compete on diversity, a more centralised selection process may result in a more representative slate of candidates before the electorate.

‘Snap election’ selection procedures

Conservatives

Under normal procedures, local Conservative associations can select from a choice as large as 20 candidates, but CCHQ’s approach has been to shadow their by-election selection procedure, presenting local selectorates with a shortlist of three candidates. This procedure has been imposed for every marginal, target, and retirement seat (where an incumbent has stood down). In non-target seats, the candidate is chosen by CCHQ. Current MPs wishing to stand again require a majority from association members. The move to handing local associations fixed shortlists gives Theresa May greater influence over what the new parliament might look like, but has left many local members reeling, leading the journalist and former Conservative candidate Iain Dale to call for greater transparency in Conservative selection procedures.

Labour

Labour’s National Executive Committee (NEC), which includes which includes leader Jeremy Corbyn, deputy leader Tom Watson, and union representatives such as Jim Kennedy of Unite, set out a plan to complete selection within two weeks of the Commons vote. Sitting MPs were given until 20th April to confirm whether they would stand again. After a brief debate, it was announced that returning MPs would automatically be re-selected and without facing a ‘trigger ballot’ where local members would have the opportunity to ‘deselect’ them. Selection in the party’s retirement seats was determined exclusively by the NEC. Applications for the party’s open seats were made available, but this time candidates for these seats were selected by both the NEC as well as regional boards.

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