The seven Nolan principles of public life are universally recognised as representing the standards to which those who hold public office should be held accountable.
These principles – selflessness, integrity, objectivity, accountability, openness, honesty and leadership – undoubtedly hold true today as high ideals. But do they also apply to those seeking public office? Those who stand for election to represent us? More importantly, do they miss the blindingly obvious? That those seeking elected office should not be, for example (just plucking something out of the air now), promoting, threatening or joking about rape.
When Lord Nolan was devising his seven principles I suspect he never once considered that someone who would seek selection for an election and who would then actually be selected by a registered political party in this country would publicly, shamelessly, behave in this way. That he would then be defended by the leader of his political party, not deselected. But here we are. In 2019. This is our politics, our public life now.
At this point we could focus on how we got here. The mainstreaming of extreme views and the politics of hate; the lies and deceit; the shouting down, the Twitter pile-ons, the hostile environment, the rage against ‘others’ women, migrants, black people, Muslims, Jews, LGBT people (or indeed any combination of the above), the misogyny, the objectification, the silencing, the backlash, all multiplied and spread by social media, like an unchecked measles virus.
The rules of the game were designed for a different era, when this behaviour simply wasn’t thought possible – but we have descended through too many tiers of Dante’s Inferno now. We have seen an MP murdered. We are seeing others receiving multiple death and rape threats. Many have additional security in place. Some of our local councillors live in fear of being targeted because their constituents know their address. Our politics have changed, so too must our response. We must be clear-sighted and must not be naïve. The abusers have been playing us.
Free speech is not an unqualified right. If my free speech intimidates, threatens or silences others then my right may have been exercised but their rights are constrained, or denied altogether. If his free speech includes talking about committing an act of rape, treating it as a joke, surely we should not be seeing his name on a ballot paper in an election, inviting the electorate to vote for him, endorsing his conduct?
There are already multiple disqualifications in place for those seeking to become candidates in local, European or parliamentary elections. These include if you are a judge, a member of the House of Lords, if you are bankrupt, if you have been guilty of corrupt or fraudulent electoral practices, or if you have been convicted of an offence and have been sentenced to more than a year in prison (three months for locals). But there is nothing about threatening behaviour on the part of the individual seeking selection. So it is possible for a candidate to be publicly talking about raping a woman, and for that candidate’s name to remain on the ballot paper. Even if the police investigate and decide that there has been a criminal offence, the individual might possibly be charged, but probably not convicted before the election takes place.
This is why I have started a petition to change the law to disqualify people for life (and I would add, with financial penalties for political parties if they fail to deselect these candidates, yes it has to hurt) from standing for election if they are promoting rape or violence.
Some say this is a bad idea, it’s all too difficult to enforce. How could the Electoral Commission make a judgement in these cases? There are many grey areas in life, true. But the acceptability of promoting rape isn’t one of them.
This is about power. There is only one reason why men threaten rape. It is to silence and intimidate women. Since when was it okay to put that on the ballot paper? I accept that the way we change the law needs careful thought, with exemptions for those who have used violence in pursuit of a political cause, for example in Northern Ireland.
But please let’s have the conversation about how we prevent our electoral system from legitimising conduct which is all about intimidating, violating and abusing others. Conduct which gives a green light to hundreds and thousands more to do the same. It’s time to stop tolerating the intolerable. To stop bemoaning the state of our politics and start doing something to change it.
Sam Smethers is chief executive of the Fawcett Society