Judy Terry is a marketing professional and a former local councillor in Suffolk.
People in public life routinely suffer some form of abuse in today’s high tech world. This applies to politicians, whether national or local, who put their heads above the parapet to do or say something even mildly contentious which they believe is in the best interests of their community, and attracts attention.
Objective criticism has always been a factor in such people’s lives, but there is something insidious and threatening in the vitriol which is so ruthlessly, and often anonymously, deployed – most frequently against women.
We’re told to ignore it and not to be a ‘wuss’. Having a bucket of stinking slurry thrown over your car, or someone stabbing your hand as you put a leaflet through the door is just part of everyday life. Don’t worry, it’s a one-off.
A district councillor told me how she was intimidated by an opposition councillor for years. Using his blog and twitter, as well as facebook, libellous literature and even badly chaired official meetings he tried to humiliate and defame her, despite her successful campaigning on behalf of local residents. She was told that he was jealous, and it was his idea of “having a bit of fun”.
Only recently, a female Suffolk County Councillor decided to stand down, citing the difficult political environment. It’s not easy finding people to stand for election to local authorities, which is why so many belong to more than one council! So, things have to change, or the pool of potential candidates will dry up completely.
Regrettably, it has taken the tragic murder of a universally admired, young Labour MP who was, first and foremost, a wife and mother, and a charity worker, to focus attention on the implications arising from the hatred and ignorance which prompts intimidation, and the fortunately much rarer verbal and physical violence directed at politicians at all levels.
Acres of newsprint will undoubtedly be devoted to analysing the reasons behind Jo Cox’s murder, as the Police continue their investigations. And she will be remembered as a role model for all young people, proving that, however modest your background, a good education can revolutionise employment prospects and ambitions; her intelligence and hard work took her to Cambridge and a selfless career devoted to helping others.
Friends and colleagues have emphasised her ability to work across political boundaries, without rancour, so one legacy from this tragedy is likely to be the revival of respect. Respect for each other, whatever the disagreements. The importance of moderate, rather than toxic, language, when passions are aroused – as they inevitably are in the political arena.
As has been said by many commentators, we are fortunate to live in a democracy, which gives anyone the right to make contentious comments, highlighting issues which may raise the temperature in debate, but there is no excuse for the targeted personal abuse, defaming the ‘opposition’, which so many members of the public find offensive and serves merely as a distraction from those issues.
As Sir Nicholas Soames said on the Marr Programme, “there has been a general coarsening of public discourse”. When emotions run high, poor behaviour can ensue, directed at individuals, either fellow MPs, councillors or even members of the public, who disagree. This can, in turn, act as a stimulus for others to troll, stalk and otherwise abuse.
Lively debate is valuable: it makes us think and even change our own views when we listen to a contrary argument. But those in public life – whoever they are, and whatever they do – should set an example and be more polite to each other.
There should also be greater sympathy and understanding when councillors raise concerns about incidents which, in isolation, could be regarded as insignificant, but are a constant worry when protracted.
It may simply be straightforward bullying from someone wanting to provoke a reaction from their victim, and ignoring the behaviour by deleting emails/texts unread can sometimes be the safest option because the abuser gets bored. However, this doesn’t always work and can lead to an escalation which may be dangerous if not investigated and addressed.
Enforcing standards of conduct to avoid anyone denigrating colleagues is another must. Clever people use humour to emphasise the quality of their argument, without making it personal.
The rough and tumble of politics at all levels is what drives many people; they enjoy scoring points, and there’s nothing wrong with that. It’s the way you do it that’s important.