Racism and bigotry scare people from standing for Parliament, MPs warn

Racist and bigoted election campaigning is hurting efforts to make Parliament more representative, say MPs and peers

Flying Colours Photography Ltd Sharon Hodgson, Labour MP for Washington and Sunderland West
Sharon Hodgson, Labour MP for Washington and Sunderland West

Women, people with disabilities and ethnic minorities may be put off taking part in Britain’s political system because of abuse or threats of physical attacks, a North East MP has warned.

Sharon Hodgson, Labour MP for Washington and Sunderland West and the Shadow Equalities Minister, said attempts to make councils and Parliament more representative were being undermined by fears that candidates would face discrimination.

And she said that every party had to act to stamp out intimidation and prejudice in politics.

She was speaking as the Commons debated the findings of an inquiry which found candidates standing for election need protection from racist, Islamaphobic and anti-semitic attempts to smear them.

The findings were published by the All-Party Parliamentary Inquiry into Electoral Conduct, which includes Lord Beecham, the former leader of Newcastle City Council.

Jeremy Beecham, who led the council for 17 years and is now a Labour peer, revealed that he had faced anti-semitic campaigning from political opponents when he first stood as a councillor in the city in 1967.

The inquiry also highlighted the case of Parmjit Dhanda, a former Labour MP, whose children found a severed pig’s head outside his house after his election defeat in 2010.

Gay rights group Stonewall highlighted a number of incidents of homophobic behaviour by candidates from many parties including an example from 2007 in which a Labour party council candidate with parliamentary ambitions, Miranda Grell, labelled her opponent a paedophile.

Ms Grell was convicted in 2007 by magistrates in Waltham Forest of two counts of making false statements about another candidate.

Mrs Hodgson told MPS: “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.”

But she warned: “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. 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.”

The number of MPs in the House of Commons from ethnic minority backgrounds has increased. After the 2010 General Election there were 27 minority ethnic MPs, 12 more than in the previous Parliament.

It means 4.2% of MPs are from an an ethnic minority compared to 17.9% of the UK population as a whole.

The 2010 census of local councillors in England, carried out by the Local Government Association, showed that 4% came from an ethnic minority background, compared to 20% of the English population as a whole.

Equalities Minister Helen Grant said: “The inquiry on electoral conduct was thorough and detailed and made recommendations to a number of bodies, including the Electoral Commission, the police and political parties. Building its findings into current work and guidance and working with the right organisations is the best way to ensure that political life becomes a battle of ideas, not of race hate and discrimination.”

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