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Islamophobia and anti-Semitism rows highlight the power of parties over political discourse

The Lee Anderson furore is unlikely to be the last of its kind in a general election year.

Lee Anderson MP
Former Conservative Party deputy chairman Lee Anderson has been deprived of the party whip for suggesting Sadiq Khan is controlled by Islamists.

As the conflict in Gaza continues to shape UK politics and the proceedings of parliament, Hannah White argues that the Islamophobia and anti-Semitism rows highlight the power of political parties to determine what is acceptable political discourse

In a way which could not have been predicted a year ago, events in Israel and Gaza are having an outsized impact on the UK’s domestic politics. With a general election less than a year away, the frontbenches of all the UK’s political parties are anxious to identify attack lines and wedge issues to differentiate their own positions and highlight divisions in their opponents’ ranks. In this context – alongside the legitimate policy positions and strongly held views of each party – many politicians have felt an irresistible temptation to inflame barely healed wounds around anti-Semitism in the Labour Party and Islamophobia (or “anti-Muslim hatred”) in the Conservative Party.  

Party leaders are weighing up electoral concerns against principle-based responses

This was the political reality underpinning the unedifying procedural row which gripped the House of Commons on the SNP’s Opposition Day last week. It was also the context for the outcry over the views expressed by Azhar Ali –  Labour’s former candidate (now disavowed) for the Rochdale by-election and the words of former Conservative Party deputy chairman Lee Anderson (now deprived of the party whip).  

The obvious but worrying truth is that some members of each party – including presumably Ali and Anderson themselves – perceive potential electoral advantage in such extreme views. Conservative MPs’ reports of emails from their voters defending Anderson, and the conspiracy theories promulgated by some participating in pro-Palestinian protests may validate such perceptions. The ideal would obviously be for individual politicians to forgo the type of political advantage that accrues from stoking intra-community tensions and intolerance.  

In lieu of such self-restraint, it should fall to parties to hold the line. But their record has been patchy. The varying degrees of ambivalence we have seen in the speed or certainty of parties’ response to potentially inflammatory pronouncements are likely in part due to the weighing of electoral considerations in the balance against a purely principles-based response. Keir Starmer’s slowness to withdraw Labour support for Ali was doubtless down – at least in part – to the problem that doing so would leave the party without a candidate in a by-election for a winnable Labour seat.      

There are few legal constraints on political parties in the UK

The tension in the incentives facing political parties when deciding where to draw the line between free speech and hate speech highlights the problems surrounding the minimal regulation of political parties within the UK’s political system. As the political scientist and historian of the Conservative Party, Tim Bale, wrote in a recent paper for the Institute for Government, political parties are “the ghost in the machine [of the UK constitution]: vital but barely acknowledged”. Although the various sources of the UK’s uncodified constitution rarely refer to political parties, it is largely assumed that they should work within its constraints, “on pain of legal sanctions, public criticism and possible electoral defeat.”  

Because legal constraints on political parties are few, compared to those in some other countries, this leaves public criticism and electoral consequences as the primary considerations for political parties when handling issues of significance for UK democracy. Alongside judging the acceptability of the statements and actions of party members, such issues include the selection of party leaders and the handling of ethical standards issues. On many issues apart from the mainly-funding focused regulation exercised by the Electoral Commission, parties are left, Bale argues “with an awful lot of wiggle room if not outright power, not all of which is necessarily exercised in the public interest.”  

What line would Braverman or Truss have to cross to be sanctioned by Sunak?

The main (blunt) instrument by which parties can – if they choose to do so – exercise control over their members is the provision or withdrawal of the right to membership. For elected members, the withdrawal of the whip is highly significant, determining not just their membership of a political grouping but their right to stand for a particular party at an election. This was the significance of Keir Starmer’s decision to withdraw support for Ali and Rishi Sunak’s decision to withdraw the whip from Anderson, decisions taken despite the electoral pressures on both leaders.  

Such consequences are also, presumably, what is behind the Conservative Party’s reluctance to even discuss withdrawing the whip from Suella Braverman (for comments ostensibly very similar to Anderson’s), or from Liz Truss for her failure to contradict Steve Bannon’s laudatory comments about convicted criminal and far-right activist Tommy Robinson. While Keir Starmer took the controversial decision of preventing his predecessor Jeremy Corbyn from representing the party over anti-Semitism concerns, it is not clear what line a former Conservative PM or possible future leadership candidate would have to cross to face a similar sanction.

Divisive political language has worrying implications  

In a democracy characterised by freedom of speech, it is difficult to see what alternative there is to leaving political parties to regulate the language of politicians – providing this falls short of illegal incitement to violence or defamation. Some kind of voluntary cross-party agreement on maintaining standards of debate might seem desirable but – given where we are – feels highly unrealistic.  

That means we need to recognise the risks for a political system which leaves such judgments to political parties in a year when their decisions are primarily governed by self-interest. As the next election approaches and the gloves come off, we face the prospect of an increasingly polarised debate in which political parties are tempted to permit the language of division for political advantage.  

Political leaders are making decisions about the language that they are prepared to stand by, or excuse, on the basis of how much public criticism it will attract and what electoral implications it may have. Worryingly, their incentive to consider the wider consequences of the political statements they allow is far weaker. The implications of these statements for standards of political discourse, for the conduct of our politics, and for the politicians facing the real world are deeply alarming.

Political party
Conservative Labour
Sunak government
Institute for Government

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