Lee Scott was MP for Ilford North from 2005-2015.
From the beginning of my active involvement in the political process I was aware of a degree of anti-semitism. When I first stood in a local by-election, and then later became a councillor here in Redbridge, this repulsive venom came from two quite distinct directions.
There was the militant hard left which had never grown out of its student days’ political fallacy of ‘no platform for racists and fascists’. The aim was to attack and exclude the Conservatives and the Jews – so they had me coming and going.
There were also the old-style fascists who had come from roots in the National Front and remodelled themselves into various factions, including the BNP. Their overt racism and hatred for Jews was clear for all to see.
Both extremes exhibited similar forms of intolerance and outright thuggish intimidation, directed both at the electorate and their various democratic opponents. In some ways, I got used to the occasional comment at the door when canvassing an elector whose opening remark was: ‘I’m not anti-Jewish, but…’ It was always a very big but. As a candidate you have to work through it, make your case when possible – and move on.
The loony left mainly pursued its agenda by seeking to infiltrate the political process through entryism and by hijacking various organisations and causes. The far right contested elections directly, and so could be identified and challenged. Neither of these extremes has disappeared, and it is crucial that their messages of hate and bigotry be opposed by all individuals of good will.
But more recently, a rather different anti-semitic element has slithered onto the stage in an attempt to distort and corrupt the British democratic process. Those who propound it claim for themselves the title of ‘radical Islam’, but their link to religion is unconvincing. They are hostile to Jews, to women’s freedoms, to homosexuals, to supporters of Israel, the USA – and so on. This disparate grouping is not linked to any mainstream political party, but shapes its activity by its priority list of hatreds. It is linked across the world by messages of loathing and intolerance.
My own experience of this group’s malevolence presence in the electoral process began during the course of the long campaign and the General Election of 2010. There were anonymous death threats directed at me, hate-filled leaflets distributed in the constituency, various e-mail and internet-based attacks and efforts to influence targeted voters through tactics that were nothing short of intimidation. It was altogether unpleasant – but the impact on the election outcome back then may well have been negligible. However, their campaign of hatred did not stop and was always present in the back ground.
It returned with full vim, vigour and anti-semitic venom in advance of the 2015 election. Serious threats were made not just in relation to me, but to my family, supporters and staff. Security advice was offered by the police, and taken on board.
This was a significant concern not just for me personally, but in a much wider context. I spoke about the matter in Parliament, wrote about it, and was interviewed on the radio and by the print media. I was then contacted by a great many people from across the UK and beyond who expressed their sympathy, concern and support.
In addition, there were many individuals, engaged in public involvement and activities, who related their own recent experience with similar targeted religious and racial abuse. These accounts came from Hindus, Christians, Muslims and Sikhs, as well as Jews. What was very clear from the comments was that many of those who experience such incidents did not report them – and that therefore the true scale of the problem was under-recorded.
During the 2015 campaign, it became impossible to ignore the potential threat from these extremists. The security measures at my family home needed to be stepped up, the police had to check and monitor the venues of my constituency advice surgeries, and we always had to be aware of potential personal risks when out and about during our canvassing sessions.
There were once again the anonymous leaflets with the ‘Don’t vote for this dirty Jew message’ distributed in Ilford North – but now better quality, with the content more polished. These made a greater effort to promote some very dubious propaganda websites, based overseas, where an individual would be able to get ‘more information’. It also emerged that a number of targeted local people were receiving emails with embedded links to these web sites.
There was a real need to make my own web pages and Facebook site more secure through measures that limited access for individuals to add their own comments or ask questions. Getting up each morning to posts on your own site filled with pages and pages of hate filled cut and paste messages, links to extremist sites and the rest is not a good thing. Once into the formal General Election campaign, such limitations were a pain – but were an unfortunately necessary one.
These security concerns also had an impact on the public meetings in the constituency, for which locally we have a long tradition, as at each some level of police coverage was required. For security reasons, some meetings had members-only restrictions placed on attendance and so were not open to the public, while for a few my non-attendance was recommended.
Self-evidently, throughout, we had to take far more notice of the security needs of our canvassers – protecting offices, committee rooms, vehicles and so on. Through all of my General Election campaigns our local action teams have included Christians, Muslims, Hindus and Jews as well as the non- religious. We have respected our mainstream political opponents, and they us. The present challenge comes from radical extremists who do not accept the democratic conventions of our politics. In 2015, the team and I campaigned as hard as we could in challenging circumstances but in the end, for whatever reasons, were not victorious.
Out of all of this there are some thoughts I would like to pass on for wider consideration. There is a general understanding that a level of honesty and trust has been vital to the British electoral process, and that those involved will stick to the rules. I am not now absolutely certain that this assumption can still be relied upon.
For example, our concerns must include the electoral registration process and how accurate it may or may not be. Individuals may well want to have their name included for other reasons, such as credit checks. Addresses may occasionally hold the multiple electors recorded, but more often are wrong, out of date or fraudulent. We have all had the experience, when canvassing, of discovering how easily non-qualifying or fictitious individuals can be included on the register. Late registration cannot properly be checked or challenged and as presently operated is wide open to abuse. Individual registration will be a significant help, but if the system can still be easily cheated further improvement may be required. The system of absent voting has improved over recent years, but retains the weakness that, when the individual votes, there is no possible guarantee that they can do so free of the influence of others.
We can all make a meaningful contribution to help identify all major weaknesses in our election system. With our experience we can come up with suggestions for improvements to protect the integrity of the whole of our democratic process.