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  1. ITV Report

West Country politicians speak of the rise in abuse during the 2019 General Election campaign

David Wood, Jonty Messer and Eli-Louise Wringe. Credit: ITV West Country

Politicians across the West Country have told ITV News about the rise in abuse they are facing during the election campaign.

We spoke to candidates in the Plymouth Sutton & Devonport and Bath constituencies - two key West Country battleground areas. With a week until the polls open, they told us of the abuse they've had to endure.

The 2019 General Election campaign is the first one in which police have given advice on such a wide scale. Speaking to politicians, the debate is whether it is social media or Brexit that has fuelled the fire to what has been regularly referred to as a "toxic" campaign.

MPs have been warned for the first time not to go out campaigning alone in the dark as threats and abuse have piled up.

With reports of an MP earlier this year receiving 2,000 abusive messages via social media in one week alone, some nights getting 100 an hour, the climate for candidates certainly seems tense.

Credit: ITV West Country

A hundred years ago Nancy Astor took her seat in Plymouth Sutton & Devonport as the first woman MP. She faced abuse and discrimination at the time, and as ITV News has been finding out, that hostility on the streets continues for candidates today.

Candidates have told us how they are are seeing an increase in hostility to politicians and online abuse.

Credit: ITV West Country

The Liberal Democrat Candidate for Plymouth Sutton & Devonport praised the advice he had been given by the police.

Graham Reed said: "When I first was asked to stand for the party in Plymouth Sutton & Devonport we received some very good and very positive briefings from the Devon and Cornwall police in the form of a letter. The advice that they gave us was first class and I think very valuable for all the candidates."

He went on to say:

It's a shame, it is something that from my youth we would never have seen. In that respect I think there are aspects about society that haven't got better and I think people are still learning to cope with the new technologies that have come along.

– Graham Reed, Lib Dem candidate, Plymouth Sutton & Devonport
Credit: ITV West Country

More than 50 MPs have decided to stand down at this election with a large proportion saying the harassment they have received was a key reason.

The Conservative candidate for Plymouth Sutton & Devonport spoke of how it gets "quite challenging" but she has "methods of dealing with it". She said:

You'll get a bit of mild venting, particularly around the Brexit issue, but obviously I haven't been an MP before so I'm kind of slightly removed from their frustration so they can tell me what they think and then we can move things on and talk about what I'm offering them.

– Rebecca Smith, Con candidate, Plymouth Sutton & Devonport
Credit: ITV West Country

Plymouth Sutton & Devonport's Labour candidate Luke Pollard received abuse which reflects the divisive atmosphere.

On more than one occasion this year the former MP had his city centre office vandalised with homophobic graffiti.

At the beginning of this campaign Pollard ensured all his staff had panic alarms and received advice from the police on how to offer them better protection.

Nancy Astor was the first woman to ever take her seat in the commons. I'm Plymouth's first ever gay MP. Openly gay MP. And those firsts are important. Nancy Astor used it to promote issues of the day in Plymouth and I've used it to talk up about us getting our fair share and to call out abuse and hate in society.

– Luke Pollard, Labour candidate, Plymouth Sutton & Devonport
Credit: ITV West Country

Of course, the advent of new technology and social media has left candidates much more vulnerable to abuse.

The online space is an area that, of course, when we think about Nancy Astor's campaign, obviously that didn't exist then. And that has been a big shift. What's particularly concerning I think with the online and social media space now in political campaigning is really the lack of regulation on it. It isn't necessarily going to be fact checked in the same way that we would expect more regular campaign things. In terms of accountability, I don't think that exists in the online space at the moment which is worrying actually, and potentially is going to make these divisions worse.

– James Ellwood, Green Party candidate, Plymouth Sutton & Devonport
Credit: ITV West Country

A campaign was launched in November with the backing of prominent MPs. The new movement encourages politicians to call out hate simply by using the hashtag #StopTheNastiness.

Someone though who insists nothing much has changed is Brexit Party candidate Ann Widdecombe.

Nancy Astor overcame it all. She overcame the sexism, she overcame the social attitudes of the time, she overcame it all. She didn't sit and whinge. She wasn't a snowflake. I think she'd be ashamed of some of the whinging that goes on now. People say to me 'Oh what was it like as a woman MP?' - I say 'exactly the same as it was as a male MP.' You are an MP. You are there to do the same job. You are there to meet the same conditions. I really can't be doing with all this stuff but 'oh it's so tough for women'. Nancy Astor would never of said that she would have just got on with it.

– Ann Widdecombe
Credit: ITV West Country

Wera Hobhouse, Bath's Lib Dem candidate, told us she's feared for her own safety.

It is unfortunately nationally very febrile and people have to put up with threats which is particularly against women. Absolutely unacceptable. I had to deal with a threat as well. And the police have been very good they came round and advised me. We are now dealing with these things.

I did actually feel quite worried for my safety last week, until the police then reassured me we have now given them every detail of where I am. I go round with an alarm button.

– Wera Hobhouse, Lib Dem candidate, Bath
Credit: ITV West Country

Bath's Brexit Party candidate says he is used to being criticised for his stance on the EU.

I've faced a lot of abuse. Particularly from what I call the 'heavy left' and Lib Dem contingency. So I'm not adverse to it. I've lost friends. People saying to me 'why the hell are you actually standing for the Brexit Party'. So it is nothing new to me.

– Jimi Ogunnusi, Brexit Party candidate, Bath
Credit: ITV West Country

I think it is something we all have to be aware of. But I don't personally feel particularly concerned. I think that a lot of that anger has been encouraged by the current government we have got, they had a very divisive approach on may issues, especially on Brexit.

– Mike Davies, Labour candidate Bath
Credit: ITV West Country

The idea that Brexit is to blame is something the Conservatives reject. The Tory candidate in Bath has faced abuse herself and blames social media.

Social media has been hideous. But that's not the real world.

I've been doing it for 20 years so it doesn't actually affect me too much but I can see how other candidates find it difficult. I don't debate on social media at all as a sort of self protective mechanism. It is a toxic place to debate.

– Annabel Tall, Conservative candidate, Bath
Credit: ITV West Country

During the election period we have focused on the West Country's most marginal constituencies that have the tightest battle between parties. To find out where the West Country battlegrounds are and what the story of each constituency is click here.

You can find a full list of West Country candidates here.