United Kingdom General Election: An Election Fraught with Danger

The UK general election is at risk as hate crimes have increased in a country which is officially in turmoil.

Police have seen an increased level of intimidation and harassment aimed at MPs, and have told candidates on the campaign trail ahead of the Dec 12 vote to be careful, not to canvass alone and most of all, to think carefully about the language they use citing that they “campaign responsibly,” and “use moderate language”.

The National Police Chiefs Council (NPCC), the Electoral Commission and the Crown Prosecution Service have told MPs to follow the written safety recommendations they have delivered and to seek advice on security measures at their home, workplace, and to the Detective Superintendent that they have appointed to each candidate as a direct point of contact. 

The Eight Rules

The political atmosphere in Great Britain is hostile and tough and election-related crimes continue to escalate. To prevent and detect crime, the police have sent a full guide to candidates that reads they should:

  1. Take active steps around personal safety to keep themselves and their campaign staff safe
  2. Not canvass alone and make sure someone knows where they are canvassing
  3. Keep records of any intimidating behaviour or abuse
  4. Engage with their single point of contact within their local force for candidate security
  5. Conduct an online health check to ensure sensitive personal information is not widely available
  6. Report intimidation or abuse to internet service providers and social media platforms
  7. Make sure they go out with a fully-charged mobile phone
  8. Think very carefully about the language they are using so that they are not inflaming the already highly-charged environment. 

Police are known to work in efforts to enable the democratic process to proceed unhindered. This generally happens with every election, but this time things have gone further.

Push Brexit through

This could be a ‘momentous’ election but as a consequence, it is also fraught with danger. More than 70 lawmakers have announced they are not running for re-election amid Britain’s toxic political atmosphere.

Even if all parties try to focus on national political issues such as economy or housing, and attempt to regroup their electorate through shared political beliefs to win a majority, the issue that UK voters still care most about is Brexit.

According to the polls, Brexit has become the most major issue since the EU referendum.

The Ipsos MORI Issues Index shows Brexit continuing to be the public’s biggest concern, with 60% mentioning it as one of the biggest issues and almost half (47%) seeing it as the single biggest worry.

While the level of public concern about Brexit has lessened somewhat in recent months (in April of this year 72% of the British public said Brexit was a big issue) it remains at historically high levels. The NHS continues to be the second-biggest issue for the public on 39%, and crime is now considered to be the third-biggest worry.

Behind these issues lie a series of concerns – education, the environment, poverty and inequality, and housing – which are each considered worrying by around a fifth of the public.

According to the polls, British adults are more likely to be in favour of the Conservatives than the Labour Party. Remain voters are most favourable towards the Liberal Democrats rather than Labour whilst Leave voters are most supportive towards the Conservatives.

Most polls see the Conservatives leading but for many British voters this year, their feelings about Brexit could trump traditional party loyalties. Tactical alliances could play a part in the parties’ success.

Commenting on the findings, Ipsos MORI Research Director, Keiran Pedley, said: “The Conservatives enter the campaign in a good position, ahead in voting intention polls”. On the other hand, for Labour, it will be a concern that Remain voters feel more well-intentioned towards the Liberal Democrats, although there are some signs in voting intention polling that the Liberal Democrats’ vote share is already starting to be squeezed by Labour regardless.

However, it should be noted that there are still several weeks to go in a campaign likely to be dominated by Brexit, so things could rapidly change.

An Election fraught with danger

“Strong and varied views are the mark of a healthy democracy, but these should not cross the line into criminal abuse, harassment or disorder. There are serious penalties for those who are found guilty of criminal offences,” the police said explaining why they issued the practical guidance sent to help candidates stay safe on the campaign trail.

Candidates have also been warned of potential signals that behaviour could be escalating – threats of imminent violence, fixated ideas or release of personal information not already in the public domain – and to immediately call 999 in an emergency.

“We’re not going to tell anyone to limit their campaigning or enthusiasm in any way, but we are taking precautionary steps ourselves and providing sensible advice to candidates.”

All police forces are going to offer security briefings for candidates and have a senior officer responsible for this as abuse or intimidation of candidates in elections has serious implications for individuals and for democracy itself.

Electoral Commission Chief Executive, Bob Posner said: “It is vital that all parties and campaigners comply with election rules and campaign responsibly. Robust political debate is part of a healthy democracy, but sometimes things can go too far.”

Instances of intimidating and abusive behaviour are increasing in the country as a result of calling another election, even though police have already seen an increased level of intimidation and harassment aimed at politicians since the backdrop of the murder of Jo Cox during the Brexit vote campaign, in 2016. 

National Police Chiefs Council (NPCC) chairman Martin Hewitt said the current political landscape has been ‘highly charged for a long period of time’.

There have been increasing concerns for British politicians’ safety since Labour Party legislator was stabbed to death. Jo Cox was assassinated by a man with far-right sympathies during the run-up to the EU referendum three years ago. Her murder was the first killing of an MP in more than 25 years. The man who killed her first shot and then repeatedly stabbed her, shouting: ‘Britain first’. He was given a life sentence for the crime.  

Trying to avoid the worst-case scenario

The NPCC said the increase in hate crimes “seemed to coincide with some of the debates” in parliament. Studies showed that when the debate was quite strong, hate crimes increased as it happened around the original date for Brexit on 31 March this year.

The first spike took place when parliament passed the “Benn Act” –  the one Johnson labelled “surrender Act” – aiming to prevent a no-deal Brexit, police revealed. Some far-right activists threatened to riot at protests over the introduction of the law calling MPs who supported it “traitors”.

The second spike recorded by police occurred in the last week of September, when a heated debate followed the reopening of parliament after the Supreme Court ruled its five weeks suspension (asked by Johnson and approved by the Queen) unlawful.

On 19 Oct, the day after the million people march in London, protesters hounded the leader of Commons Jacob Rees-Mogg and his 12-year-old son in the street while leaving Westminster shouting: ‘shame on you’. The officers then lined up across the street near Mr Rees-Mogg’s mansion to prevent activists pursuing him to his front door

Cabinet colleague, Michael Gove, also had a 12-strong police escort to leave the House of Commons on that day.

The scenes coincide with the Commons harsh debate. A Peoples’ vote spokesman said they didn’t endorse anybody being followed or barracked by protesters on their way home.

The Daily Mail columnist Sarah Vine, Gove’s wife, said: “The thing about politicians is no one feels any sympathy on them and to a certain extent you have to suck it up. This is just what happens if you are in politics in Britain today”.

Senior officers would not be drawn on the specific impact of the prime minister’s language but repeated appeals for moderation from public figures.

Police wanted to make clear that, sometimes the way things are said can be perceived as permitting people to act beyond the normal boundaries.

It is not necessarily what is being debated but the nature of the debate and the way things are said that, to some extent, reflects on incidents reported across the rest of the country with a dramatic increase in abuse pushed by a xenophobic and racist wave starting since the EU referendum was called. Since June 2016, incidents were reported all over the country and several people have been prosecuted for making threats to politicians, that’s why they are requested to campaign responsibly.

Different episodes, same target: women

A 55 year-old-man has been jailed for sending a threatening letter to the MP Anna Soubry (who is standing for the Independent Groups for Change) telling her that she would be murdered like Jo Cox. “Cox was first, you are next,” he wrote. The letter arrived at Soubry’s constituency office and was opened by a member of the staff.

Jess Phillis, a Labour MP, a month ago, said she received a death threat which quoted Boris Johnson. The threat read: “It was rather prophetic that Boris Johnson should say ‘I would rather be found dead in a ditch.’ That is what will happen to those who do not deliver Brexit,” Ms Phillips revealed on Twitter. She also said the police were called to her house several times amid a “massive recent increase” in personal abuse, right after she asked an urgent question in the House of Commons to debate on Parliamentary language and after claiming PM had a “direct strategy designed to divide”, which, she said, was ‘working’.

The former US secretary of state, Hillary Clinton, spoke at King’s College London, talking about issues faced by women. She criticised the heavily misogynistic atmosphere online which has seen female candidates not stand in the general election. She has warned that the number of female MPs quitting politics because of threats and intimidation risks putting Britain on the path of ‘authoritarianism’.

“It is a terrible loss and a loss to democracy if anybody is intimidated out of running, and disproportionately the people choosing not to run in the first instance or for re-election are women,” she said.

Mrs Clinton said social media culture was serving the ‘amplification of hatred’ which led to the ‘political assassination’ of Labour MP Jo Cox. All kinds of hatred and bias has been with us from the beginning of time, that is no surprise, “but something about the amplification of the hatred attracts even more people,” Clinton concluded.

Nicola Horlick “was dubbed a ‘superwoman’ in the 1990s for her ability to balance a large family with a successful career in a largely male-dominated industry,” The Financial Times said.

She is now standing as an MP for the Liberal Democrats. In 2005 she fought off a man with a gun outside her house in London and she would ‘do the same if she had to’. “Women are attacked online more frequently than men,” she admits. “The only explanation is that the attackers are misogynistic and often lonely men who feel empowered by having a phone and access to Twitter. They feel like ‘someone’ when attacking a prominent female.”

The high-profile fund manager and City “superwoman”, Ms Horlick, doesn’t fear standing and campaigning even if she has to admit: “there is always a risk that this men could harm to a female politician as happened with the killing of Jo Cox” and that’s why she concluded: “The key thing is to not go out alone”.

How to solicit voters in the mid-December snap elections 

A mid-December general election throws up challenges that could wreck even the strongest campaigner because of hard weather conditions representing a real headache for all candidates. Cold wind, gales, heavy snow, ice and floods could ruin travel plans and leave candidates grounded.

The election date is only a week from the shortest day of the year and this makes it harder for activists campaigning in the dark and chilly evenings and poses also problems for polling stations staff. What if that day will be particularly rainy, windy or snowy? 

Being honest, this would also affect turnout; we should not forget how voters are tired of the never-ending-Brexit debate. 

The very short and dark winter days are a particular challenge as voters won’t welcome representatives after dark. Travelling around some areas in the UK will be tough and most people will be thinking about Christmas, parties and shopping instead of the boring political issues. 

And what about the weather conditions in areas like Scotland where a large part of constituencies have no street lights, the sun rises at around 9 am sits low and sets at 3 pm? After sunset it is dark and it raises the challenge of making sure canvassers and candidates get to people. Add in rain, wind and cold it makes campaigning from street stalls harder too, again reducing the chance for voters and candidates to meet.

Door-to-door canvassing is considered to be one of the most effective tools, since the age of the ancient Rome. The face-to-face interactions are supposed to help increasing a voter’s investment in a candidate more than any other strategy, especially before social media broke into modern political communication. 

Most canvassing happens early evening, when voters return from work and activists are free to help, it is difficult to get people to come to the door on a winter’s night and getting them to stay at the door if they do.

The National Police Chiefs’ Council said it is urging candidates not to campaign alone if possible and to contact local police in advance of campaigning in specific areas like these. 

Just a quick flashback.

Despite the political wisdom that winter elections suppresses turnout, December 1923 was mild and numbers held up. Although the Conservatives remained the largest Party the result was a hung parliament. In January 1924 MacDonald became the first Labour Prime minister, but the Labour government fell the following November.