Equality watchdog advises parties on free expression and respectful discourse ahead of general election

Published: 30 May 2024

  • Equality and Human Rights Commission advises how to foster democratic participation and facilitate wider freedom of expression.
  • Britain’s equality regulator also issues advice to political parties on legal considerations around respectful discourse.
  • Guidance calls on parties to promptly investigate any allegations of unlawful conduct.

The Equality and Human Rights Commission (EHRC) today published guidance for political parties, candidates and campaigners on promoting freedom of expression and respectful discourse, in advance of the upcoming general election.

Political parties and candidates in the UK enjoy great latitude in exercising their right to freedom of expression, with political speech and debate on issues of public interest protected by the European Convention on Human Rights.

While political parties have some duties under the Equality Act 2010, these are relatively limited and do not extend to activities such as campaigning in an election period. However, politicians should be mindful of the need to conduct debate in a responsible manner, and crucially, the opportunity election campaigns offer for them to lead others in doing so.

The EHRC’s new guidance highlights how respectful discourse can foster democratic participation and facilitate wider freedom of expression across our society. It recommends a set of principles for respectful discourse and explains important legal considerations and limits to freedom of expression in law.

John Kirkpatrick, Interim Chief Executive of the Equality and Human Rights Commission, said:

We are lucky to live in a country where people hold many different views and where everyone has the right to express themselves freely.

“Our political candidates must be able to engage in discussion and debate, even where others might disagree, or even take offence, at the views they express.

“But as we approach the general election, we know the public sphere is frequently dominated by challenging and contentious issues. Divisive public discussion, amplified by the media and social media, can reinforce prejudice and divide communities.

“A healthy democracy depends on people from all backgrounds feeling able to engage in politics and participate freely in these national conversations.

“As Britain’s equality regulator and an ‘A’ status National Human Rights Institution, the EHRC has responsibility to ensure the debate on these issues does not exclude or discriminate against anyone.

“By providing our political representatives with this guidance, we seek to empower them to foster open and inclusive political conversation during the general election. We ask all political parties to carefully consider this advice and fulfil their obligations under Britain’s equality and Human Rights laws.”

The guidance advises parties to make clear that their elected representatives must not discriminate against protected characteristic groups when representing the interests of constituents. They should carefully consider the impacts of referring to groups of people who share a protected characteristic in a way which is derogatory or suggests a shared negative trait. 

Candidates and political parties are also reminded that any attempt to incite violence, hatred or discrimination against others is likely to be unlawful. There is some evidence in a 2024 House of Commons briefing paper on Hate Crime Statistics which suggests that significant national events correlate with spikes in particular types of hate crime. It important to be particularly mindful of the impact that public discourse can have in these periods.

The EHRC calls on parties to promptly and thoroughly investigate any complaints of unlawful conduct. Any individual failing to meet these expectations should be subject to the appropriate disciplinary measures.