Byron Davies is Chairman of the Welsh Conservative Party, and was MP for Gower from 2015-17.
The 2015 general election saw the 109-year Labour stronghold of Gower Constituency fall to the Conservatives. This significant win followed years of conventional campaigning by a dedicated team of committed local activists. That was to change upon the announcement of the 2017 election – which saw a new and very unpleasant dimension introduced to the political campaigning ethos.
April 18 2017 is a date etched on my brain: returning to Westminster after the Easter break by train, I was shocked to learn from breaking news that the Prime Minister had called a snap election. With the lowest majority in the Commons, and with only two years incumbency to consolidate on the 2015 success, I knew we were going to be up against it.
That said, I quickly reassembled the previously victorious campaign team, and we were ready for battle in a short space of time. Enthusiasm – given the Conservatives’ position at that time in the polls – was running high, but we were unprepared for what was about to confront us.
Gradually, over the first two weeks of the campaign, my social media accounts, in particular Twitter, began to see aggressive use of language in relation to Government policy. This was soon followed by objectionable personal attacks for the way I had voted, in which unofficial websites were quoted that gave inaccurate information on my parliamentary voting record. This quickly spread to my Facebook account. We were now some three weeks away from election day, and it was obvious that I was under siege from a concerted left-wing attack by people readily identifying themselves as Jeremy Corbyn’s supporters.
It was however, these final weeks that witnessed the most unpleasant behaviour. Allegations of wrongdoing on my part in respect of claims for perfectly legitimate parliamentary office costs spread like wildfire on both my Twitter and Facebook accounts. In the main, those responsible hid behind a cowardly cloak of anonymity. But worse was to come: my name was included on a concocted document, listing a number of MPs who, it was alleged, were being investigated for electoral fraud. This of course was not true in my case. However, it again blossomed into an uncontrollable explosion of inaccurate allegations within postings on my social media accounts.
It certainly gained traction within the constituency: I was being stopped in the street and questioned in relation to the accusations. Together with fellow campaigners, we were knocking on doors, and immediately confronted by these false claims. Furthermore, allegations were made against my wife, and I received threats of physical harm, which had to be referred to police. Virtually every campaign sign that had been erected in the constituency had been destroyed or defaced with vulgarities.
This was the new and hideous face of campaigning in Gower by those who sought to circumnavigate the traditional and accepted democratic process of robust debate. The social media platforms rejected my requests to remove these postings, Electoral Commission Wales was unable to help, and I still await a response from South Wales Police in relation to the malicious communication allegations – one year later! In any event, the election result was disappointing, with Gower returning to Labour.
It was time to bite back, and address these wrongs. Having given the matter considerable thought, I decided to make a personal stand, and demonstrate quite clearly that there was a price to be paid for making such outrageous and inaccurate allegations. An apology would at least go some way to addressing the hurt that had been inflicted on my family. But more than this, a point had to be made – namely to establish very clearly that there is also a high price to pay for such unacceptable conduct. After consulting with my lawyer on the matter, civil proceedings were instigated against a particularly vociferous pro-Corbyn supporter who had been very public in defaming me on social media. In short, I achieved an apology pinned to the perpetrator’s account accepting the fact that his Tweet was false, and a financial penalty imposed which will be donated to a charity of my choosing.
Employing a legal remedy to address such behaviour is expensive and is a lengthy process. It does, however, demonstrate quite clearly that there is justice to be had, and those that flaunt the bounds of accepted behaviour will have to pay the price. I was fortunate to be well advised by my lawyer, James Roochove, and I would not hesitate to follow the same course of action again should such an occasion arise. Hopefully, however, my action will set a trend, and I encourage those in similar situations to which I found myself, to make a stand, follow my example and defeat those that seek to undermine our democracy.