Last week I led a debate in the commons on electoral discrimination. The debate followed my work as chair of the all-party parliamentary inquiry into electoral conduct which published its recommendations late last year. Our focus was on racism and discrimination in political campaigning. I want the Labour party to be leading the charge for equality, decency and respectful conduct during elections.
It was important for our inquiry to say from the outset that we value freedom of expression above all else and that robust campaigning has always taken place when there is a clash of ideas. But this cannot be used as an excuse to overstep the mark into racist and discriminatory activity which intimidates candidates and in some cases means that they do not put themselves forward in the first place.
While campaigning in the United Kingdom is generally a positive process, there are a number of areas in which our committee thought that British politics would benefit from better frameworks for action. For instance, we recommended that the Equality and Human Rights Commission broker cross-party agreement on a framework for reporting discrimination during election campaigns. Too often, we were told, concerns from members of the public were not properly registered or responded to. Public confidence in electoral systems is a key prerequisite to our democratic life and I have been working tirelessly to get the EHRC to follow our recommendation and secure all-party agreement on a public reporting portal, a named official responsible for assessing cases, a clear timeframe for investigation and the publication of adjudication or sanctions.
We found that all political parties would benefit from better training, support and safeguards for the welfare of their candidates. Even as we move towards finalising our candidate list for 2015 there are some unsettling stories about the way that some people behave. We want all political parties to understand existing formal and informal support networks better and to let their candidates know about them.
Giving evidence to our inquiry, former Labour minister Parmjit Dhanda cited examples of discrimination and misconduct he had experienced, including comments he had heard about a disabled candidate he had represented as a party agent. Sadly, Parmjit said that candour about such matters is difficult given the fear of appearing weak as a candidate or discouraging other ethnically diverse candidates from running.
This has to be something that we think more carefully about as a party. In our report we argued for a shift in culture whereby victims of discriminatory and racist conduct are encouraged to speak out. In order to foster that culture we need people to speak up but we also need the party to be proactive. Introducing proper training – and using our extensive networks to do so – is a first step but proper, speedy, transparent and public action against discriminatory conduct and language is just as important.
However, the importance of the Equalities Commission improving its work in this area cannot be underestimated. The transformation of the former Commission for Racial Equality into the Equality and Human Rights Commission saw the abandonment of a number of good practices relating to monitoring of electoral practice. Under the current government it has morphed into a rigid bureaucratic instrument where it should be a leading rights body. It could easily do more – in its briefings, reports and with its code of conduct – to ensure it is fully complying with the public sector equality duty.
On the plus side, the Association of Chief Police Officers has indicated that it plans to incorporate a number of our recommendations into its work plan for the next election and the Electoral Commission has started to implement some of our recommendations. The main political parties have all committed to working towards improving electoral conduct in advance of the next general election.
A progressive Labour movement should be leading the way in ensuring that election campaigns are a battleground of ideas, not an opportunity for personal attacks on candidates because of their race, ethnicity or religion.
Natascha Engel MP is chair of the backbench business committee
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