OPINION
02/09/2019 06:00 BST | Updated 02/09/2019 08:54 BST

We Must Detoxify Political Debate. The Future Of Our Democracy Depends On It.

Amid the most ferocious political storm in recent memory, we must stem the tide of abuse and intimidation in public life, write the Jo Cox Foundation's Jacqui Smith, Catherine Anderson and Kim Leadbeater

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Getty Images

Parliament resumes this week amid the most ferocious political storm in recent memory. Emotions are running high all across the county. The coming days risk further inflaming the tempers of even those who normally remain calm in the face of bitter political controversy.

We can fully understand why people are feeling angry and frustrated. But as a nation we are not used to talk of coups, dictators, saboteurs or collaborators. In these circumstances there are genuine reasons to fear for the health of our democracy.

It is not for us at the Jo Cox Foundation to pass judgement on the tactics employed by either the government or its opponents, but we have a duty to remind everyone of the risks of fuelling extremism if people begin to lose faith in the democratic process.

The Foundation would not exist but for an act of unforgivable political violence. We must never forget that stoking grievances and prejudice through inflammatory language can create an atmosphere of fear and intimidation leading to calamitous results. 

People have an absolute right to protest, whether in parliament, on demonstrations or in the media. We believe strongly in freedom of speech. But we would urge everybody to avoid saying or doing anything that could incite or lead to violence.

We can and must debate our differences vigorously but not at the price of legitimising violence.

Of course the stakes are high, but in this context even ‘do or die’ starts to carry an ominous connotation.

Brexit and the polarised political landscape have created a febrile environment in which incendiary language and actions thrive. Add a possible general election into the mix and there will be a powerful temptation to ramp up still further the rhetoric of confrontation. We can and must debate our differences vigorously but not at the price of legitimising violence.

“I knew Jo Cox,” said the Conservative MP Guto Bebb recently. He urged the prime minister to reflect very carefully on his use of words “when he knows full well the threats people are facing.” It is a warning that should be taken seriously across the political spectrum.

The last general election just two years ago saw a marked increase in abuse and intimidation experienced by candidates of all parties. As a result Theresa May commissioned the Intimidation in Public Life Review. Many of the examples of abuse evidenced were nothing short of chilling.

The Jo Cox Foundation is privileged to be working with the authors of that report on a Joint Standard of Conduct for all political parties. This was one of the key recommendations from the Committee on Standards in Public Life. We hope all parties, on behalf of their members and elected officials, will subscribe to it.

The campaign trail should be a marker of our ability to disagree civilly, to debate opposing opinions, and to hold close our democratic right to free speech. But now these collective freedoms are being dangerously eroded. Public life is suffering because of it. The very future of our democracy depends on us reversing this dangerous trend.

Our political culture can be protected from further damage. But only if action is taken now

Our political culture can be protected from further damage. But only if action is taken now.

The Joint Standard aims to set out the minimum level of behaviour expected from all party members – certainly during elections, but we would argue at all times. It should directly link to party disciplinary procedures, with a common intention to ensure there are effective processes and appropriate sanctions for those who breach the guidelines.

The Standard would actively promote and support the Nolan Principles of Public Life – selflessness, integrity, objectivity, accountability, openness, honesty and leadership – and would go a long way towards enabling an environment of tolerance, dignity and respect.

There is an urgent need for leadership from all parties if we are to stem the tide of abuse and intimidation in public life, and start to detoxify politics.

The Nolan principles need to be adopted and extended not just in and around Westminster but well beyond. A Joint Standard is an essential first step. ‘No deal’ on how we conduct our politics should not be an option.

As a nation we can weather the storm best if our democratic values are properly protected. MPs returning to parliament should make it their first priority.

Jacqui Smith is chair of the Jo Cox Foundation and a former home secretary

Catherine Anderson is the CEO of the Jo Cox Foundation

Kim Leadbeater is an ambassador for the Jo Cox Foundation and sister to Jo Cox