Let's make respectful debate the election winner

Thursday 7 November 2019

Our Chief Executive, Sophie Walker, who was recently named one of the top 25 charity influencers by Charity Times, on halting abuse in politics during this election period. 


As Parliament packs up and heads out to campaign, it might seem that candidates’ biggest challenge this election is simply to garner enough votes to secure their seats: GE2019 looks like a raggedy race across divided constituencies where the only certainty is uncertainty.

But what if the route to success lay instead in how candidates, and their activists and supporters, conduct their campaigns -  in how they discuss their policy ideas, engage with competitors and seek to persuade the disenchanted? What if the biggest win of this election was a shift in the way that we conduct all elections?

Over the last week a national conversation about halting abuse in politics lit numerous imaginative essays and media appeals for a better way. It seemed as though an exodus of principled politicians, featuring a great number of women citing personal safety concerns as their reason for leaving, had pulled us all up, collectively, short.

Suggested solutions ranged from updating Parliament’s employment practices and code of conduct; moving into a modern building with a circular debating chamber; introducing electronic voting to enable a better work-life balance for MPs. The new Speaker of the House Lindsey Hoyle announced he would seek to end the "bear pit" atmosphere in the Commons. And a think tank called Compassion in Politics launched a campaign -#StopTheNastiness - calling on candidates to campaign with respect.

house of commons

As an activist and former politician now working in the third sector, I was pleased to see this surge of self-awareness among campaigners. At the last General Election, I was a parliamentary candidate and was barraged with online abuse, threats of violence and face to face vitriol that at times landed like blows.

The Centenary Action Group’s petition last week was a no brainer: our cross-party coalition of activists, politicians and women’s rights organisations asked all parties to set a framework for decent public debate, establish a meaningful process to deal with allegations of violence and abuse; and for social media companies to provide faster, better reporting and response mechanisms.

And yet there is so far to go to re-establish respect and trust. Quite apart from the massive Brexit despair felt on both sides, look at the pain of the Grenfell survivors hearing Jacob Rees-Mogg this week suggest it would have been “common sense” to ignore fire brigade advice and flee. Consider the pain of Labour’s official Jewish affiliate announcing it will not support the party’s general election campaign because of Jeremy Corbyn’s “failure of leadership” over anti-Semitism. Consider the distrust and hurt of people of colour who among daily insults and rising anti-migrant hate speech post-referendum, heard Angela Smith, a current Liberal Democrat candidate, describe them as having a “funny tinge”.

Change from the top is always slow. Real change happens from the ground up. So what if activists and campaigners led the way to create a movement for better conduct? It’s a big ask of people who have been hurt, overlooked and dismissed by elected representatives and, now, prospective candidates. The call-out culture, recently called out itself by President Obama, is in many ways a natural reaction to a hate-filled political environment. Many activists for social justice feel entirely right in shutting down people who have hurt them or painted them and those for whom they seek to advocate as "other".

But this fiercely protective form of activism must open up if we are to progress national political debate in the way we now demand. Otherwise we risk being part of the same vicious circle.

Activism isn’t an insistence that others protect your feelings. Activism requires robust, respectful debate. Narrowing divides means changing mindsets and changing minds by the power of that robust and respectful debate. It means succeeding by persuading, rather than condemning anyone who disagrees with you as a bigot.

And no, that doesn’t mean you have to patiently engage with every troll, populist and attention-seeker. It doesn’t mean submitting to abuse from those determined to be divisive. One of the most life-changing things I did as an activist was to halt engagement with opponents doing it for kicks or absolutist solutions.

Open activism means recognising and making space for those who engage in good faith to discuss ideas from a different position. It means allowing space for alternative perspectives as well as celebrating common ground. It means leaving room for nuance. It means creating safe spaces –  away from Twitter! – where more people can engage with real faces and voices instead of anonymous avatars.

A vastly overused directive to activists right now is the one by Gandhi about being the change you wish to see in the world. An alternative take is that when no-one’s coming to the rescue any time soon, it’s possible to rescue ourselves.

Right now, Young Women’s Trust is building a new project to support activism among the one million young women who have been left behind by successive government - who live on no or low pay, furthest from power and on the edge of poverty.

young women

A key part of setting the standards we want to see from others lies in defining our principles of protest. It is possible to argue with conviction and fire in your belly while respecting that in a democracy differences are inevitable and indeed healthy.

How about if, as activists and campaigners, we all start by setting a different tone ourselves during this General Election. What if we could show the politicians how it’s done? What if instead of being told “what the people want” by those seeking to hold on to their own power, we demonstrate that what many people really want is respectful debate, where no-one’s rights come at the expense of anyone else’s rights and where difference can be something we cheer instead of hiding or weaponising.

Politics needs radical change. Right now there might be nothing more radical than principled and vigorous kindness.

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