Freedom of expression and respectful discourse: Guidance for political candidates and parties

Published: 30 May 2024

Last updated: 31 May 2024

What countries does this apply to?

  • England
  • Scotland
  • Wales

Overview: freedom of expression and elections

1. Our society is built on the fundamental values of democracy, human rights, equality, liberty and the rule of law. The effectiveness of our democracy depends on freedom of expression and open and robust discourse in which all members of society can participate. Political parties and candidates must be free to engage in and promote discussion and debate - even where others do not agree with, or even take offence at, the views expressed.

2. Equality and human rights laws in Great Britain protect these principles. Political speech and debate on questions of public interest are strongly protected by the European Convention on Human Rights (ECHR). While there are some Equality Act duties on political parties, they are relatively limited. This means that political parties and candidates enjoy great latitude in exercising their right to freedom of expression.

3. This protection means that political discourse in Great Britain, particularly in the run-up to elections, can be a way through which new, challenging, and sometimes contentious ideas are debated and tested at a local and national level. The positions of authority and influence held by parties and candidates means that not only can they express their own ideas, but they can also play an important voluntary role in creating the conditions for broad democratic participation and respectful discourse. Elections provide a particular opportunity to consider how we can protect and uphold the right to freedom of expression for everyone in society. People from all backgrounds and with a range of views are equally free and empowered to contribute to the debate.

4. This guidance covers two areas for candidates and parties to consider in the run-up to elections:

  • recommendations and principles for respectful discourse and fostering good relations
  • legal considerations and limits to freedom of expression in law

Recommendations and principles for respectful discourse

5. When you are convening discussions or engaging in political debate and discourse, both in-person and in online forums such as social media, you should consider steps you can take to create an environment where people who disagree with each other feel comfortable and confident to exercise their right to freedom of expression without fear of hostility, harassment or abuse. 

6. You should be aware that the use of alarming, distressing and/or threatening conduct including abusive or insulting language can be a criminal offence. Conduct which does not meet the criminal threshold may still have an impact on individuals’ ability to exercise their right to freedom of expression.

7. You should carefully consider the potential impacts of referring to groups of people who share a protected characteristic, such as those of a particular race or disabled people, in a way which is derogatory.

8. We strongly recommend that you avoid, wherever possible, stating or implying that people who share a protected characteristic also share a particular negative trait, or are collectively to blame for a specific social problem. This can lead to stereotyping of certain groups and we have seen some evidence that political events such as the European Union (EU) referendum can lead to spikes in racially or religiously motivated offences. [1] It can also have a ‘chilling effect’, where people from these groups feel afraid to engage in debate.

9. We also recommend that you do not denigrate opponents based on their protected characteristics. MPs and elected officials already suffer unacceptable levels of harassment and abuse, particularly online. Focusing on their protected characteristics, rather than their political views and positions, can exacerbate this. This harassment and abuse can deter people from standing for office or expressing sincerely held views.

Specific guidance for parties

12. All parties should make clear in their party rules that elected representatives must not discriminate against protected characteristic groups [6] in the way they represent the interests of all their constituents.

13. Parties should also ensure that, where complaints of any unlawful conduct are made against party members, they are promptly and thoroughly investigated. Those who are found to have failed to meet these expectations should be subject to appropriate disciplinary procedures, according to party rules.


[1] EHRC, Equality and Human Rights Monitor 2023, page 193: ‘Sudden increases in racial or religiously motivated offences have been seen around major political or terrorist trigger events, including the EU referendum, July 2017 terrorist attacks and the Black Lives Matter protests and counter-protests in summer 2020’. 

[3] For example, the right to non-discrimination under Article 7 of Universal Declaration of Human Rights 1948, Article 26 of International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights 1966, Article 5 of Convention for the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination 1969, and Article 14 of European Convention on Human Rights.

[4] Article 20(2) of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights requires that ‘any advocacy of national, racial or religious hatred that constitutes incitement to discrimination, hostility or violence shall be prohibited by law’. See also Article 4 of the Convention for the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination of Racial Discrimination 1969.

[5] For example, Vejdeland and others v Sweden (2014) 58 EHRR 15.

[6] Relevant characteristics are found in the Equality Act 2010 (the protected characteristics are age, disability, gender reassignment, marriage and civil partnership, pregnancy and maternity, race, religion or belief, sex, and sexual orientation). Parties may also wish to consider the groups listed under the prohibition of discrimination in the European Convention on Human Rights (sex, race, colour, language, religion, political or other opinion, national or social origin, association with a national minority, property, birth or other status), and the criminal justice system’s definition of hate crime (disability, race, religion or belief, sexual orientation or transgender identity).

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