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Abuse In Politics Threatens Everything We Stand For

05/09/2016 11:53

The anti-Semitic threats which my colleague, Ruth Smeeth MP, has received are vile. The Police are right to investigate and I hope those responsible are held to account under Law.

It's chilling when these kinds of things happen to you. Last weekend, I was one of at least 25 MPs who received, by e-mail, the anonymous death threat that has also had some coverage this week. Although I am not Jewish, I have personally been the target of anti-Semitic harassment and threats in recent years. One person doing it has twice been arrested and convicted - the latest coming early last year. Somewhere along the line he had convinced himself that I was Jewish and that my advocacy for Palestinian human rights showed that I was some kind of sinister double-agent. His image was fantasy but the impact of the threats was real and scary - not only on me but on my family and staff too.

On the other side of the coin, my advocacy for Palestinian rights has frequently attracted waves of abuse from extreme wings of those seeking to defend Israel too. In those cases, the abusive charge of anti-Semitism seems to be used as a weapon to smear and discredit those who take a legitimate different view. As you can see from some of the examples here, the abuse I receive online is horrible.

The timing of most of the above incidents preceded the current Labour leadership contest. As far as I know, the death threats sent to 25 MPs from different parties last weekend had nothing to do with it either. So we should all be careful before throwing generalised allegations around there - on either side.

But it should be a reminder to all of us involved in progressive politics that we should be better than this - and demonstrably so.

After all, why did we become members of the Labour Party? I did not join the Party or want to serve as an MP, as I proudly do for Birmingham Northfield, to argue and insult those slightly to the left or right on the political spectrum. I did so to speak up for the underrepresented, the underpaid and the vulnerable.

Slagging people off as "traitors", "backstabbers" or "scum" is not acceptable whether or not those terms are prefixed with "Blairite", "Corbynite" or anything else.

Insults like these are not the same as explicit threats of violence. Of course they are not. But once you start dehumanising people with whom you disagree to the extent that they become "fair game" for levels of insults you would never accept as reasonable if levelled at you, then the danger is that you unwittingly become a small cog in a much bigger wheel. And as that wheel turns, the insults legitimise the abuse and the abuse legitimises the threats.

So don't be surprised - if somewhere down the line - someone who you will never meet whose perspective on the world is probably already distorted, believes that the insults, abuse and threats combine to legitimise another act of violence.

All this is why it should not surprise anyone that a lot more MPs are now stepping up our personal security than those who have gone public about doing so.

Yes, the social media companies need to do far more in response to online abuse while preserving the freedom of speech that is central to the vibrancy of their networks. But all of us involved in politics have responsibilities too.

That means acting against abuse wherever it takes place not ignoring it. It also means resisting the temptation to only acknowledge abuse if it comes from "the other side". Weaponising allegations of abuse by opponents (or allegations of purges in response) may not be the same as weaponising the abuse itself but it is also unlikely to help. Insults are never an acceptable substitute for political argument, from whichever direction they come.

Abuse in politics disfigures us all and it threatens us all.

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