The “coarsening” of campaigns

Prof Dan Stevens

Cornwall Professor of mass political behaviour, University of Exeter.


Prof Susan Banducci

Professor and Director of the Exeter Q-Step Centre, University of Exeter.


Twitter: @femalebrain

Dr Laszlo Horvath

Laszlo Horvath is a Postdoctoral Research Associate at the University of Exeter, working in the areas of political communication, media, and gender, using quantitative and computational methods

Twitter: @_lhorvath

André Krouwel

Associate professor in political science and communication at the Vrije Universiteit Amsterdam and is founder and co-owner of Kieskompas (Election Compass), a leading developer of Vote Advice Applications across the globe.

Section 1: Truth, Lies and Civic Culture

The number of MPs who stood down prior to the GE2019 campaign may not have been above average, but the reasons given by MPs were noteworthy. According to one report by Euronews/Institute for Government, 14 of the 74 who announced they were not standing in the election cited abuse as the cause of resignation or abuse was referenced in resignation statements. In a 29 October 2019 letter to her constituents, MP Heidi Allen cited “threats, aggressive emails, being shouted at in the street, sworn at on social media” as the reason for her departure. Longer serving MPs, such as Alan Duncan, claimed the job of an MP was “coarser and ruder” than when he had entered politics in 1992. According to the Euronews story, abuse was more commonly cited by women than men as a reason for standing down: 25% of female MPs standing down, compared to 17% of their male counterparts, referred to the hostile environment. Men made reference to today’s politics being a “coarser” (Nicholas Soames and Alan Duncan) or a “disturbing” place (Norman Lamb) with women MPs, having entered Parliament more recently, more likely to directly reference threatening behavior (both online and offline).

These stories of abuse-related resignations were preceded by a 2017 report by the Committee on Standards in Public Life detailing issues relating to abuse and harassment in campaigns. The work on this report was spurred by the murder of MP Jo Cox, who served as a Labour Party MP from May 2015 until her death in June 2016. The written submission to the committee provided by the team who conducted the Representative Audit of Britain suggested that one third of candidates surveyed had experienced inappropriate behavior during the 2017 campaign.

Between the release of the report on “Intimidation in Public Life” and the 2019 election, there were a number of public reports on the hostile environment in the House of Commons. A House of Commons report released in July of 2019, led by senior lawyer Gemma White, spoke of bullying and harassment of MPs’ staff. Coming at the same time was a report based on an inquiry conducted by Naomi Ellenbogen QC, that staff in the House of Lords were also bullied and harassed. Both of these followed a 2018 independent report by Dame Laura Cox which claimed that abuse was tolerated and the system for dealing with abuse complaints was insufficient.

The evidence of an environment of harassment and bullying would lead one to conclude that politics has become toxic. Expressions of concern about incivility in politics are one dimension of a popular recognition that democracies across the globe are “going through difficult times”. On the one hand, politicians suffer abuse from constituents and the public; on the other hand, politicians also use fearmongering, often times inciting incivility among political elites. These transformations in the landscape have lead scholars to claim that politics has become “coarsened”, polarized, detached from the truth and, above all, “uncivil”. By these measures of incivility, the relationship between and among elites and the public has been compromised.

There are at least two questions we can address about incivility in political life that are relevant when analysing GE2019. First, to what extent has the digital transformation in campaign communication impacted on the tone of political debate? Second, what are the implications of the coarsened debate on citizen engagement?

As noted, in the 2017 Public Life report, social media has changed the conduct of elections and how the public engages with candidates. Candidates must be on social media to win votes – social media campaigning can influence candidates’ and parties’ electoral fortunes. Yet, according to Delmar and Hudson, attacks on social media were the most common form of harassment reported by candidates. A report on Twitter abuse in the 2019 campaign by PoliMonitor, suggests an increase in problematic tweets, with women candidates receiving only slightly more abusive tweets than male candidates.

In addition to concerns about the safety of political candidates, online attacks can also have corrosive effects on citizen engagement. We asked 1,277 respondents who participated in a voting advice application whether they agree that “Seeing politicians get attacked on social media makes me less likely to participate in politics”. Overall, approximately 28% agreed with the statement with women more likely than men (33% to 28%) and Remainers more likely than Leavers (36% to 18%) to agree. This implies the coarsening of politics is limiting political engagement for a substantial portion of the public, potentially skewing participation in political campaigns, and even voting, to those who enjoy or are mobilized by this style of politics. Given that much of this appears to be driven by social media, getting Brexit done appears unlikely to improve the situation.