This week, the All-Party Parliamentary Inquiry into Electoral Conduct, in which I and my colleagues Angie Bray and Stuart Andrew took part, published its recommendations. The Conservative Party played a leading part in this inquiry, and I am pleased to report that our institutional approach to tackling discrimination is rightly credited in the findings of the all-party panel. For example, Michael Ancram’s decision to write to candidates before the 2001 election reminding them of their duty to use responsible language is set as a marker of good practice. So, too, our work with SCOPE on access to candidacy is also praised. However, now as then, there are lessons that we should heed, not just as a Party but as a country, if we wish to remain at the forefront of good practice.
The impetus for this inquiry came from the work of the All-Party Inquiry into anti-semitism. Too often, that inquiry panel found, antisemitism was apparent in political campaigning around elections. They recommended the Electoral Commission take action, but progress has been slow. I am pleased to report that our inquiry has moved things along significantly and, in the best traditions of work against anti-semitism, this work should help to prevent not only anti-Jewish prejudice but other forms of hate crime, too.
Electoral Campaigning in Britain is, we have found, generally a positive and democratically enriching process. British law is, broadly speaking, sufficient and, if used properly, effective. There are, however, a number of areas in which better frameworks for action could be introduced which would make Britain not just a responsible democracy, but one that is world-leading in facing down discriminatory electoral conduct.
A key recommendation for our Parliamentary panel, then, was that cross-party agreement be sought by the Equality and Human Rights Commission on a framework for reporting discrimination during election campaigns. Specifically, we have suggested that this should incorporate a public reporting portal, named official responsible for assessing cases, a clear time frame for investigation and publication of adjudication or sanctions.
Our party is not free from criticism. Accusations of, for example, abuse of a candidates’ poor mental health have previously been levelled against us. I want the Conservatives to be at the forefront of challenging behaviour unbecoming of our party, and I am delighted that the Prime Minister put his name to the Conservative Party written submission. This should be a message for all in our Party that, when campaigning at elections, there is an expectation at the top level of the Party that there should be a high standard of integrity and propriety in debate. Where that fails to happen, our committee has recommended that the public have a conduit to the right person to have any case properly assessed.
For candidates, too, we want to see more and better training, support and safeguards for their welfare. Many of the people we interviewed told us that campaigning can be a harsh and frightening experience – not just for them but for their families, too. It doesn’t have to be this way. We may need broad shoulders in politics but we don’t need to be alone and silent in the face of discrimination. There are organisations out there that will help ethnic minority candidates that suffer abuse in whatever form it comes. We want all political parties to better understand those support networks and to avail their candidates of them. It is good that our informal “buddy” programme for MPs – in which support is offered by one colleague to another – is highlighted as an example of good practice.
There are, however, a number of other areas in which we want to see action. It is odd that at present, political parties are free from any oversight on election-time advertising. The Advertising Standards Agency told us that some years ago, for a variety of reasons, it stopped applying its code to the parties. That is not good enough, and we have recommended that the Government to step in and seek cross-party agreement on a code of conduct for the future.
Where non-party groups are not playing a positive role, that, too must be addressed. Our inquiry panel heard evidence of a group in Milton Keynes which sought to “try and play off people’s prejudices about travellers’. Other alleged cases of misconduct included a group leafleting in support of Ken Livingstone’s failed mayoral campaign, and the Muslim Public Affairs Committee which, we were told, “aggressively pursue candidates” that fit a number of criteria. There is a clear need for better regulation and the panel recognised this. Our Party is at the heart of the Government’s push for better regulation of third parties (or non-party campaigners, as they are referred to) through the Lobbying Bill. Increased transparency and accountability for those campaigning in individual constituencies would be wise and might go some way to addressing concerns that have been raised.
In publishing our report, we achieved cross-party consensus on issues of vital importance to British democratic life and the recommendations if implemented will benefit not just minority communities but British democracy in general. We will maintain pressure on electoral and equalities institutions to play their part, the mantle rests equally with our party members and candidates to live up to the gold standard expected of us.