This should hardly need saying, but it seems it does need saying. Verbally abusing people is vile and unacceptable. It is not OK and should be a matter of public shame. Nor does it matter if said abuse is directed toward an MP, as if MPs are not real people. Neither does it become acceptable if the particular MP you are directing it at belongs to the party, or one of the parties, that you, your friends or a majority of other people despise. MPs are people and, as people, command a level of respect that is not being recognised when a torrent of abuse and pejorative is hurled in their direction. This applies to anyone who can credibly lay claim to the label ‘human person’ regardless of nationality, ethnicity, religion, sexuality, gender or anything else.
The reason it is necessary to say this is because MPs have reported growing levels of abuse. A BBC survey found that 87% of MPs claimed to have experienced abuse during the 2017 general election. The Guardian report, ‘half (51%) of the MPs who responded to the Radio 5 Live survey said it was the worst election campaign they had experienced in terms of abuse’. This is shameful indeed.
As a result, the Electoral Commission are now suggesting that those who indulge in such abuse should lose their right to vote. This is a particularly troubling suggestion.
The law is already clear that any language that could be reasonably interpreted as a threat against the person represents an assault against the person. Any abuse that is sustained and ongoing is already covered by harassment. If somebody uses abusive language but the one on the receiving end is unaffected by it, though it is undoubtedly impolite and unpleasant, it does not constitute assault or harassment because the individual was in no way intimidated by it and thus, naturally, it can’t be counted as intimidation.
The reason for pointing this out is that the law already makes provision for charging those who make intimidating threats and those who engage in abusive harassment. The law does not need changing, it simply needs applying. Those who engage in intimidation, harassment or assault (as defined above) online can already face custodial sentences.
The issue is that the Electoral Commission are speaking about banning people from voting on the grounds of abusive language. How exactly are we defining abuse? Will swearing at an MP now disbar someone from voting? What about robustly disagreeing with them? Will it be the subjective feeling of the MP that determines whether abuse has taken place or will there be some objective measure? If one has not actually intimidated an MP, even if one uses some colourful and robust language in disagreeing with them, has abuse taken place or not?
The issue is that this represents yet a further attack the things we are permitted to say. Not only that but now words that may be deemed abusive will lead to punishment. Interestingly, these words cannot simply represent threats against the person and sustained harassment because existing law already deals with such things. This leads one to presume that this simply covers words that one doesn’t like, a level of impoliteness, for want of a better word.
Whilst I am all for politeness, and much abuse of MPs is truly disgusting, does it warrant barring people from the democratic process altogether? I find it a highly worrying suggestion. The crackdown on what we are able to say is now extending to whether we might even elect those who are moving to stop us saying them freely. That surely can’t be right.