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The Language of Political Discourse

October 27, 2019 10:07 AM
By Sal Brinton
Originally published by UK Liberal Democrats

Sal brinton

I chair the all-party parliamentary group on bullying. We focus on helping young people and we know many schools now use the THINK acronym to teach good communication (Is it True; Is it Helpful; Is it Inspiring; Is it Necessary; Is it Kind?).

As a party, I think we need our own version of THINK:

Is it True

Is it Hurtful

Is it Illegal

Is it Necessary

Is it Kind?

Over the last few weeks and months, the tone and language of political discourse has become increasingly nasty, hurtful and - for too many politicians - dangerous. We have MPs (of all parties, whether supporting leave or remain) who have been targeted by trolls of the worst kind, who use language to harass and intimidate.

Women, people of colour, LGBT+ people and those with disabilities are particularly targeted and in a clearly hateful way. Diane Abbott is constantly trolled, Caroline Spelman has had to have police support and is standing down, and our own Jo Swinson is unmercifully targeted by Momentum and SNP trolls.

As Liberal Democrats, I hope we all abhor such behaviour. I am sure, like me, you believe that the language we use as Liberal Democrats speaks to our values. But we all need to check our own language because it is far too easy when insults are thrown at us, to respond in kind.

Two years ago, on behalf of the party, I appeared before the Committee for Standards in Public Life as they took evidence about the intimidation and harassment of parliamentary candidates in the 2017 General Election.

I was not there to tell of how many of our candidates had been on the receiving end of such intimidation and harassment - we had witnesses who spoke for themselves with shocking examples.

No, I was there to explain to the Committee what actions our party takes when we discover that a party member has behaved inappropriately, or worse, committed a hate crime. You can see the Committee's report here. It is depressing reading. But, frankly, things are now much worse.

You will all have seen the debate in parliament two weeks ago which has forced us all to think about the language that we use in politics. And last week, Jo Swinson was amongst party leaders who met with the Speaker of the House of Commons, and they agreed this declaration:-

It is important to remember that as members, under our members' code of conduct we have responsibilities as well as rights, and I would ask all of you to think carefully about what you say.

If you are on the receiving end of trolling often the best way to go is to say nothing at all - walking away could help you avoid making a mistake. Never post in anger!

There's an old football adage "play the ball, not the person", which is a good starting point, but we also need to think about the boundaries. Have you been upset by the language used by an opponent? Is there anything that you have posted that could have been received in a way to upset the recipient, beyond the usual exchange of views? Or make them feel threatened? Or made them feel so worried that they need to go to the police because they fear for their personal safety?

Lest you think that I exaggerate, during the last election one Lib Dem member proposed that his current MP should be hanged. She was, rightly, extremely upset, and the member was expelled, and on your behalf, we apologised for the member's behaviour. Like all political parties, I'm afraid our complaints team are seeing more complaints, not fewer, too many of which are serious.

And please, don't be a bystander if you see colleagues going that step too far: a gentle word early on can stop the escalation of the word war.

So please, before you post, just THINK!