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All-Party Electoral Conduct Inquiry: The Rationale

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In 2006, a cross-party group of MPs reported on their Inquiry into anti-semitism which I had commissioned. That report featured 35 recommendations for government, parliament and civil society. A great number of those recommendations have been successfully actioned, but one in particular has proven difficult to implement.

The report advised that the Electoral Commission should: "[...] draw[s] up a contract of acceptable behaviour which outlines the duty of all election candidates to exercise due care when addressing issues such as racism, community relations and minorities during political campaigning."

In the government's 2007 response to the Inquiry they advised that this matter was one for the Electoral Commission. The commission has advised that codes beyond the reach of the law were unenforceable by them. The issue can therefore only be resolved by a clear code agreed and enforced by the political parties. In other words each political party keeps its own house in order, using a transparent process agreed by all parties.

To that end, I have commissioned a new inquiry into electoral conduct, with a particular focus on discrimination - in all forms, not just anti-semitism. In doing so, I have drawn on the lessons learned from the previous inquiry. We have a respected chair in Natascha Engel MP who leads the backbench business committee. We have a group of distinguished parliamentarians from both houses and we have representation from five of the parties represented in our parliament.

This cross-party approach is key, especially given electoral malpractice is a cross-party blight. One does not have to look very far to find examples of conduct unbecoming of public representatives and their agents.

The 2004 campaign for Bethnal Green and Bow was marred by what was described as anti-semitic campaigning on the part of some campaigners against Oona King, the then Labour candidate.

The Labour party circulated proposed elections posters in 2005 of then Conservative Party leader Michael Howard depicted as a Fagin-like character. Whilst concerns were raised at the time, there remains a vacuum of responsibility for election-time publications. Neither OFCOM nor the PCC have taken responsibility, deferring to the political parties to self-police.

In 2010, ex-MP Andrew Pelling who had the whip removed by the Conservative party after serious allegations were made against him by his ex-wife, had his depression used against him in a briefing widely distributed by local Conservatives.

Then in 2012, the Liberal Democrats issued a leaflet in south-west London describing a 'straight-fight' between their party's candidate and the Conservative candidate also standing for the council who happened to be gay. Stonewall CEO, Ben Summerskill suggested there were "things whispered on doorsteps" in Kingston that would be shocking to many. The 'straight fight' or 'straight choice' mantra was used during the 1983 Bermondsey by-election in which Simon Hughes faced Peter Tatchell. Hughes has since apologised for what he said were inappropriate leaflets.

Part of the problem in investigating electoral conduct is that it is broadly unquantifiable. High profile cases like those above make the press but many other stories are not publicised - Lee Scott MP for example spoke in a parliamentary debate about a leaflet distributed in his constituency claiming he was an "enemy of Islam" alongside a picture of him in a Jewish head covering. This inquiry is an opportunity to reach a better understanding of the extent of the problem.

The purpose of the inquiry however, is not to drag the parties through the mud, to shut down free speech or to exasperate with tails of misconduct. Rather, we hope to bring to the fore examples of good and replicable practice. Working outside of an election cycle, we would like to see considered thought given to a transparent, workable and enforceable framework on electoral conduct which can be agreed by the political parties. This will give clarity for candidates and agents, for the parties and ultimately confidence to constituents about how concerns will be addressed.

The call for evidence has been issued and details are available at www.antisemitism.org.uk

John Mann MP is the chair of the All-Party Parliamentary Group Against Antisemitism. He tweets @JohnMannMP and the group can be found @APPGAA.