Sharon Hodgson

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Electoral Conduct (Discrimination) debate 07.05.14

Sharon responded to a Westminster Hall debate on discrimination surrounding elections in the UK.

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Mrs Sharon Hodgson (Washington and Sunderland West) (Lab): It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mrs Main. I thank my hon. Friend the Member for North East Derbyshire (Natascha Engel) for securing this important debate and opening it so well. She and her colleagues should be congratulated for their stewardship of the inquiry on electoral conduct and the quality of the excellent report they produced, which we are discussing today. I also commend my hon. Friend the Member for Bassetlaw (John Mann), who is not in his place at the moment, and who chairs the all-party group on anti-Semitism, for its tireless work in tackling discrimination at all levels.

The report has plugged a big gap in the study of the democratic process in the UK and I hope that it will become compulsory reading for everyone, from political parties and candidates to local authority officials, and particularly for the Electoral Commission and the Equality and Human Rights Commission. It contains examples of the worst of human behaviour, some of which we heard about from the hon. Member for Ilford North (Mr Scott). He was brave to talk about it, and even braver to live with it day in, day out. I commend him for his determination to carry on doing so. It is all the more horrendous, reading the report, to realise that such things have been perpetrated against people we know and consider friends. For instance, there is discussion of the pig’s head left outside the family home of Parmjit Dhanda, a former Minister who was an excellent colleague. The report also highlights things written in his local newspaper. Colleagues yesterday reminded me of the anti-Semitic campaign waged against my right hon. Friend the Member for Manchester, Gorton (Sir Gerald Kaufman) by his Lib Dem opponent at the last election.

One of the issues I am looking at, at the moment, is how we can increase the representation of people from black and minority ethnic communities at all levels of the political system, not in a spirit of box-ticking or tokenism, but because our political system and the decisions that it makes are better if they more accurately reflect the country and the communities they affect. I am sure that for many candidates the threat of their skin colour, background or faith—not to mention their children’s or relatives’— being turned into smears or innuendo or leading to harassment or abuse such as we have heard about today is a real consideration. Of course, that applies to gender as well.

I am sure that the Minister and other hon. Members will be aware that the all-party group on women in Parliament is doing significant work on the issue, and I am pleased to be on the panel for that. I worry that the fear I have described will mean that many excellent candidates never seek their local party’s nomination or get the chance to be elected. None of us goes into politics without the fear of attack, and none of us is immune from attack on some level; but we should always expect any attacks on us to be based on choices or decisions that we have made, the things we have said, the way we have voted, or what we have done. We should never accept attacks based on the things we cannot change about ourselves, such as race, gender, sexual orientation or disabilities. Neither should we attack others, or allow them to be attacked by our supporters or others, in that vein.

Every talented and enthusiastic potential candidate who shrinks away from seeking office because of the fear, perceived or real, that they will be the victim of discrimination, is a loss to their community and the country. Those people are also a loss to the political party that they might have represented. Political parties owe their survival to the continual need to bring through new talent and come up with new ideas. They cannot afford to exclude people from that, and neither can they afford people excluding themselves because of a fear of discrimination.

If for no other reason than that, all the major political parties should pay close heed to the recommendations in the report—particularly on how they support candidates in withstanding such attacks. I am happy to discuss that with my hon. Friend the Member for North East Derbyshire in my role as Labour’s spokesperson on equalities. She and our colleagues will know that there are some support networks out there. For example, I am a mentor for the Fabian women’s network candidates programme, and have been paired with our prospective parliamentary candidate for Brighton, Kemptown. The party has its own future candidates programme, and I am sure that other parties do similar things. I am certainly keen to discuss with my hon. Friend what more we can do.

The debate is timely, in the sense that we are well into an electoral period in which there has rightly been a particular focus on the views of certain candidates—and particularly those of a certain party. However, as the report makes clear, the problems are not exclusive to an individual party or to far-right groups. Nor are they confined to a certain election or historical period. They are persistent, cyclical problems that will continue unless we do something meaningful about them.

Natascha Engel: One of the big problems we found was that the mainstream political parties feel that they already have processes in place; they do not want people to see them as not working as well as they should on the issue. Will my hon. Friend work within the Labour party to ensure that we are committed to signing up to something with all the other political parties, rather than working with them in a conflictual manner, so that we can achieve the greater aim? I just want to get her commitment to work within the Labour party so that we can do that from our side.

Mrs Hodgson: I can definitely give that commitment today to work with my hon. Friend to see what we can do within our party.

The central thing that I took from the report was the need for a statutory body to take a lead. There is much that political parties can do and agree on, especially at this time in the electoral cycle, but we should not be under any illusion: come 2015, all political parties will be primarily and almost myopically focused on the campaign and on winning every vote they can. It will simply not be possible for national or even regional officers to vet or review every single leaflet, YouTube clip or tweet from their candidates or their opponents, or anyone else who seeks to influence votes, as in the kind of non-party campaigning outlined in the report. Nor is it possible for political parties to issue guidance to public bodies on their duties to promote equality and good relations between communities.

We have an Electoral Commission and an Equality and Human Rights Commission; and we also have the police for when things really cross over into illegality, such as in the incident described by the hon. Member for Ilford North. The EHRC has had serious budget and staff cuts during this Parliament, but I cannot believe that it no longer has the capacity to play a role. After all, what could be more damaging to equality and good relations between communities than influential people such as local or national politicians using discriminatory language, producing discriminatory campaign literature, or being seen to condone such discrimination?

Dr Eilidh Whiteford (Banff and Buchan) (SNP): The hon. Lady is making an important point. One issue that we identified when compiling the report was that it is very difficult for any authority to take timely action, because often, by the time an investigation has taken place, the election is over and done with and in some cases there has been an impact on the outcome. That is one of the most serious and difficult issues for us to grapple with.

Mrs Hodgson: The hon. Lady makes a very good point. There was a case in which action was taken and a Member of Parliament was forced to step down because of something that had happened. However, the hon. Lady is right: the delay can sometimes mean that it is very difficult to follow things up.

I understand that the Government now hold a programme budget back from the Equality and Human Rights Commission, for which it has to bid in relation to specific pieces of work. I believe that a portion of that fund may have been allocated since the report was published, but that some remains. The Minister may be able to tell us whether the EHRC has bid, or is bidding, for some of the fund to do this work ahead of next year’s general election, or whether she would like to recommend that it do so following the report.

Police forces have also seen their budgets cut considerably, and understandably, electoral conduct is only a very small issue for them. Again, however, there is clearly merit, from a crime prevention point of view, in ensuring that they stamp out discrimination in electoral campaigns before it reaches the point described in the report, with police having to escort the hon. Member for Ilford North to hustings and stepping in in Bethnal Green and Bow in 2005. Of course, the Electoral Commission has a responsibility to ensure that elections are conducted in an orderly way. It seems sensible for that to include an overarching responsibility to pull together the various strands of work to help to prevent discrimination.

We should not forget that the vast majority of political campaigning in this country, and certainly that done by the parties represented in the Commons, maintains very high standards. Yes, it is often negative in tone and it is sometimes, regrettably, personal in nature, but by and large it seeks to highlight facts and figures and policies and records, whereas discrimination in all its forms, whether it is born out of ignorance, irrational fear or plain old stupidity, is simply unacceptable in 21st-century Britain and should not go unchallenged. But even more than that, discriminatory behaviour, and the encouragement of such behaviour by others, that is born out of cynical calculation, a desire for self-promotion or simply cowardice is absolutely despicable and should have no place whatever in British politics.

It is our responsibility as people who serve our constituents—not just some of them, but all of them—not just to avoid discriminatory behaviour and language ourselves, but to challenge it wherever we find it. Doing and saying nothing is not being diplomatic; it is pandering to it and tacitly agreeing with it. I believe that, as elected representatives, we have a responsibility, a duty, to lead work aimed at strengthening the bonds that tie communities together, not to stoke the flames of suspicion, fear and illogical hatred, which rip them apart. That duty applies just as much when we are seeking the support of those communities in an election as when we are not.

I have already said that I am more than happy to speak further to my hon. Friend the Member for North East Derbyshire about what we can do within the Labour party on these issues. I agree with her recommendation that each political party have a named person to take the lead on them. However, she and her colleagues are right to say that this is a cross-party issue, so although I am looking forward to hearing what the Minister intends to do to address some of the concerns raised by the report and by my hon. Friends and others during the debate, I for one would be happy for the debate to continue outside the Chamber and to see what action we can agree on a cross-party basis.

My hon. Friend the Member for North East Derbyshire and her colleagues on the inquiry panel have set a great example, and it is important that their work now be taken forward and that we do everything we can to stamp out discrimination and the victimisation of others for political gain.

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