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Less passion and more compassion is needed in British politics

PUBLISHED: 05:30 11 April 2019

When the votes are counted at the end of the election campaign, how will the toxic nature of politics affect the turnout? Picture: ASHLEY PICKERING

When the votes are counted at the end of the election campaign, how will the toxic nature of politics affect the turnout? Picture: ASHLEY PICKERING

Copyright Ashley Pickering

It's been a very long time since I've approached the start of a political campaign with quite as much foreboding as I feel about the start of the 2019 local election contest.

Conservative Party candidate for Priory Heath in the Ipswich  Council elections Sam Murray has been abused and threatened online. Is it time for us to look at politics differently? Picture: SAM MURRAYConservative Party candidate for Priory Heath in the Ipswich Council elections Sam Murray has been abused and threatened online. Is it time for us to look at politics differently? Picture: SAM MURRAY

Because British politics has become so toxic, so divided, and frankly so unpleasant that I can well understand many people just wanting to slam the doors in the faces of anyone wearing a political rosette!

The Brexit debate has split families and friends – and many of those taking a position in the debate seem to have delighted in using quite extreme and violent language to try to advance this cause.

This venom has now extended to all areas of politics to the extent that we now have council candidates seeking to represent their local communities getting social media hate-messages and threats of violence against them.

Is it any wonder that many people seem to have no interest in local politics?

What we need is far more meaningful, measured debate on issues – and far less violent rhetoric. And by that I mean we need to see far less violent language brought into political discourse.

A few days ago I put up a Tweet expressing concern about the way leading Tory Brexiteer Mark Francois from Essex seemed to want to frame every argument he had in terms of conflict – likening the Brexit debate to D-Day (when hundreds of thousands of troops and civilians died) or talking about having a “fighting chance” of overturning a parliamentary vote.

Ipswich Conservative candidate Sam Murray came back to chide me for writing in the past about “election fights” or describing somewhere as a “battleground ward.”

I tried to justify this as a normal idiom, and said that writing it in an election profile is different to using those words in front of an excitable crowd on Westminster Green.

But, on reflection, I came to the conclusion that Ms Murray was absolutely right – and as someone who has been the victim of online abuse she should know.

I shall endeavour to cut out the violent imagery from my election coverage – eliminating fights, battles, battlegrounds, this kind of over-the-top language.

As an old hack who’s been writing about politics for 30 years I cannot guarantee one of these phrases won’t slip through when I’m writing to deadline – but I’m going to do my level best to cut them out.

I have seen people trying to excuse these kind of expressions as being part of the normal British political lexicon reflecting the passions on the subject that many people feel.

I’m sorry, but given the events of the last three years that is no longer an acceptable excuse for inflammatory language. What politics in this country needs is less passion and much more compassion.

Politicians and political activists need to be told again and again that it is possible that someone might fundamentally disagree with them on a subject because they simply have a different point of view – it doesn’t make them an enemy who should be totally ignored or attacked.

We’ve seen hyperbolic comments from politicians on both sides. While Mr Francois has become the chief fire-stoker for the Brexiteers, David Lammy has been doing the same for the other side of the argument.

I accept he has fundamental policy differences with the Conservatives’ European Research Group, but to compare the parliamentary debates with them to Churchill’s struggle against Hitler was irresponsible and incendiary.

Because while the vast majority of people can see what I saw one person describe as “flowery language” as just being a way of describing their innermost feelings – for a tiny minority this kind of language can be trigger to something much darker.

That can be carrying effigies of Sadiq Khan and Theresa May with nooses around their neck to a demonstration in London – or it can be burning a guy wearing a Boris Johnson face mask on November 5.

Or for a tiny minority it can turn into something even worse – targeting individuals with threatening social media posts.

It can result in extremists plotting to assassinate MPs, as we saw in a recent trial that has been concluded. Or it can even lead to murder as we saw with Jo Cox just before the referendum.

I know many will say we cannot allow our lives to be changed by a tiny number of deranged individuals – but it is necessary for everyone involved in politics to understand that what they say, write or do can have consequences.

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