Protecting rights and democracy: The road ahead for the new UK government

10 July 2024


Issues related to extremism, hate and disinformation were a major focus of the 2024 UK General Election, both on the campaign trail and at the ballot box. This article considers the key threats to rights, public safety and democracy facing the new Labour government, and suggests pathways for policies that address the scale of the challenge.

The 2024 UK General Election Campaign

The issues of hate, extremism and disinformation impacted on the election campaign in different ways across the country. Racist comments surfaced from multiple candidates, predominantly affiliated with smaller or fringe parties. The Reform Party, for example, dropped three candidates over offensive remarks, with two candidates defecting to the Conservatives over racism. The Workers Party, headed by George Galloway, was afflicted by racism and antisemitism scandals related to candidates in Stoke North, Poplar and Limehouse and Cheadle. Concerns were also raised about Green Party candidates, and at least four candidates were either dropped or withdrew following a probe into extreme or antisemitic comments on social media. The Labour Party additionally expressed concerns about Conservative candidates who had spread conspiratorial views, and a Labour candidate in Scotland was suspended over anti-Muslim activity on X. All parties have therefore struggled with inadequate internal vetting processes.

This election was marked by a significant level of abuse and harassment targeting candidates for their views or campaigns. Among many other examples, Labour MP Stella Creasy’s office was vandalised, while Conservative candidate Leila Williams posted on X that her team member was assaulted while putting up a poster. It was only recently that harassment of MPs impacted democratic processes in the Speaker’s selection of amendments on a vote for a ceasefire in Israel and Gaza. Former Conservative MP Mike Freer stood down for safety concerns, citing a plot against him by Islamist Ali Harbi Ali (who instead went on to kill David Amess MP) and the 2016 murder of Jo Cox MP.

There were also some examples of artificial intelligence being used to spread fake or manipulated information including false recordings of new Secretary of State of Health and Social Care Wes Streeting discussing the Israel/Gaza conflict. There were also reports from ABC of a disinformation campaign potentially linked to Russia, in which a network of coordinated Facebook pages shared AI-generated images depicting scenes of mass immigration. This echoes activities ISD uncovered in the US, where hostile state actor use of AI in influence campaigns may serve to influence elections. Following a response from a Conservative Party spokesperson, the ABC report prompted a rebuttal from the Russian Embassy in the UK. The official account, which has over 243k followers on X, commented “such unfounded claims vividly illustrate the crisis of ideas that has engulfed the Tories as they arrive at the end of their tenure in power”.

Elections results

Although Labour secured a landslide victory with significant seat gains, voter share proportions show a more complex picture. Nigel Farage’s Reform Party only gained five seats under the First Past the Post system, but received over 4 million votes (around 14% of the total vote). While this is not wholly unprecedented (UKIP won 12.6% of the vote in 2015), Reform’s voter share represents a potential splintering of the right and a reasonable level of success for a relatively new political party. Reform’s ticket emphasised anti-immigrant policies, with their manifesto targeting “divisive ‘woke’ ideology” and promised to ban so-called “transgender ideology”. These ‘culture war’ issues have driven further polarisation in recent years and have the potential to threaten the rights of migrant, transgender and other vulnerable communities. In the context of the rise of anti-trans and anti-LGBTQ+ language in the UK, between June 2022 and June 2023 ISD tracked more than 50 protests against drag events, with narratives that often conflated LGBTQ+ identities, particularly trans identities, with paedophilia. Meanwhile, anti-migrant hate campaigns have included the violent targeting of asylum seeker accommodation, including the October 2022 far-right terrorist attack on a migrant centre in Dover and an April 2024 terrorist attack at a Yorkshire hotel.

Five constituencies delivered shock results bucking an electoral system geared towards larger parties, as Labour candidates lost to independents. BBC analysis has linked the strong pro-Palestinian tickets of the independent MPs to areas with larger Muslim communities, and questioned whether Labour has alienated Muslim voters over their stance on the Israel/Gaza conflict. Pre-election polling indicated that one in five Muslim voters ranked the conflict as their most important issue. While individual voting decisions may have been made for a range of local, social or political reasons, in a bumper election year, global geo-political crises may well continue to play a significant role in voting trends despite these existing challenges.

Notably, Jeremy Corbyn, who formerly led the Labour Party and was later suspended for presiding over the antisemitism scandal and expelled for running against the Labour Party, retained his Islington North seat as an independent. Meanwhile, three Labour MPs were elected in Barnet, part of the so-called ‘bagel belt’ which is home to large Jewish communities; this is evidence of the recovery of Labour’s Jewish vote which collapsed under Corbyn. George Galloway’s Worker’s Party, which gained a seat in a recent by-election due to an antisemitism scandal involving the Labour candidate, ended the election with no seats.

The road ahead

The new Labour government, as identified in its manifesto, faces a “more volatile and insecure” world. The last time the party was in power, the international threat landscape was dominated by the post-9/11 focus on Islamist terrorism; it now faces a vastly different set of challenges. New wars in Europe and the Middle East have far-reaching impacts, hostile authoritarian states threaten global stability and are working to weaken liberal democracies, hate and intolerance has flourished (exacerbated by social media, where an emerging regulatory system is still in its inception).

Terrorism and extremism 

CONTEST, the UK’s 20-year-old counter-terrorism strategy, has struggled to adapt to the emergent threat landscape. Driven by social media, contemporary terrorist activity is highly decentralised and increasingly amorphous. While the 2023 CONTEST refresh recognised the rapidly shifting nature of this threat, existing policy structures remain insufficient to address the new set of risk factors and drivers of extremist violence. In a 2023 speech to Royal United Services Institute (RUSI), the new Home Secretary Yvette Cooper correctly identified the importance of neighbourhood policing and the reintegration of former terrorist prisoners. Labour’s manifesto also highlighted Martyn’s law which will require greater security protections at large venues; it was written in memory of Martyn Hett, who was murdered in the Manchester Arena bombing.

However, beyond these small shifts, a new overarching strategy is needed – rooted in a rights framework and centring communities as trusted partners rather than objects of suspicion – to prevent violence and protect against growing threats to democracy and pluralism. This will involve greater cross-government cooperation, combining mental health and social services to shift the focus from merely preventing acts of extremist violence to building healthy and resilient societies, with terrorism only one symptom of extremism. An early priority for the government, identified in the Prime Minister’s first press conference, will be prison and criminal justice reform. Plans for early intervention for young people on knife crime may also serve to prevent extremist violence, where motivating factors – including social isolation or search for community – increasingly intersect with other forms of criminality.

The new government will need to go beyond the new definition of extremism introduced earlier in 2024 – which served merely as technical guidance for government engagement with communities – to establish a renewed, long-term counter-extremism strategy that addresses the societal impacts of extremism in its diverse forms, from harassment and abuse to the restriction of rights.

Hate

The Labour party manifesto describes its “landmark mission” as halving violence against women and girls (VAWG) within a decade. This thread of tackling misogyny runs strongly throughout the manifesto, from developing specialist rape and sexual offences police teams to improving sex and relationships education to creating additional police powers to tackle misogyny including “using tactics normally reserved for terrorists and organised crime”.

The manifesto aptly draws a link between “misogynistic content online” and a “culture of violence against women”. Currently, misogyny is neither counted as a hate crime nor formally recognised as an ideology in violent extremist motivation. Misogyny can serve as a pathway to other forms of radicalisation via the inter-connectivity of different online ecosystems. The link between mainstreamed misogyny, VAWG and growing ideologically-motivated misogynistic violence promoted in online ecosystems have not been effectively recognised in existing policy responses.

The recent mainstreaming of culture wars has placed certain minority communities at the centre of toxic political debates. ISD network mapping has demonstrated how anti-migrant and anti-LGBTQ+ accounts form standalone ecosystems which interconnect with white nationalist and harmful conspiracy networks The new Labour government will need to seek a path which protects the rights and freedoms of minorities – in particular migrant and trans communities – while at the same time addressing hate speech targeting them.

The 7 October Hamas attacks and subsequent Israel-Gaza conflict have catalysed a surge in antisemitism and anti-Muslim hate on- and offline, challenging both Jewish and Muslim communities. Following the European Commission Strategy on Combatting Antisemitism and Fostering Jewish Life, many EU states and the US have recently built complementary national strategies. These are often combined with educational toolkits and digital literacy programmes. In the UK, however, no such public infrastructure exists. While the education curriculum’s coverage of the Holocaust is highly valuable, it does not encompass the diverse manifestations of contemporary antisemitism. Comprehensive counter-hate and social cohesion strategies are vital to bring communities together, address the spread of harmful narratives on social media and build resilience to prevent similar consequences in the scenario of a future conflict.

Hostile state actors

Yvette Cooper’s RUSI speech and the Labour manifesto correctly identify the growing threat faced by hostile state actors. The manifesto aptly identifies a lack of a “robust and long-lasting equivalent of the CONTEST strategy”, which the new government has promised to develop in parallel. A clear action line from Labour has been to integrate a new “joint cell” between the Home and Foreign offices to deal with the state-linked nature of many contemporary terrorism threats.

Labour’s manifesto additionally seeks to “amend terror legislation to allow Government to ban hostile state-sponsored organisations”. Some key organisations to whom this policy may be directed include the Wagner group, who were designated as a terrorist group by the previous government despite outstanding questions on their ideological motivation as a mercenary organisation, and the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC). For many years, UK governments have faced calls to ban the IRGC due to their role in promoting hate and extremism on British soil and alleged involvement in violent plots; Canada designated the IRGC as a terrorist organisation in June 2024. As such decisions sit between foreign policy and national security, they would certainly benefit from increased Foreign and Home Office intelligence-sharing and decision-making. This should aim to meet the need to develop more integrated research and analysis of the hybridised threat environment, which to date has been largely siloed.

Digital regulation 

The passage of the Online Safety Act (OSA) was a significant step towards protecting users from the diversity of illegal content, but the proof will be in its delivery. The Labour manifesto stated its intention to speed up this process and mentions “explor[ing] further measures”. However, a policy gap still exists in the significant challenge posed by the free proliferation of harmful content which does not reach the high threshold for illegal hate speech or harassment, including misogynist abuse, dehumanisation, exploitation and the chilling effect of mainstreamed hate, among others. The OSA also does not fully succeed in addressing the threat to democracy where hostile state actor interference is not comprehensively addressed.

Meanwhile, the lack of legislation for data access is frustrating efforts to effectively capture the scale of online harms and the evolving threat picture, assess platform compliance with regulation, and in the medium term, establish whether the OSA and Ofcom are having the desired impact on safety outcomes. Data access by vetted researchers would additionally create an ecosystem of scrutiny which would include accountability for the regulator with regards to any potential impact of over-regulation on freedom of expression.

A safeguarding-first approach becomes even more vital in the context of rising youth engagement with terrorist material online and consequent participation in terrorist activity. As the Labour manifesto notes, minors face “significant harm online, with inappropriate content too easily available at their fingertips on a smartphone”.  For example, ISD investigations have found how young YouTube users are exposed to potential harmful material, such as videos relating to self-harm and suicide, by the platform’s recommender algorithm. Following the 7 October attack, ISD identified that violent and gore content was being served to minors’ accounts, even when toggles to restrict content were enabled. Ofcom’s current consultation on their codes of practice for children seeks to set out how companies can comply with their duties to protect minors in practice, with a specific emphasis on whether platforms’ algorithms promote illegal content. Meanwhile, concerns have been raised by civil society that Ofcom’s proposed approach to tackling illegal content falls short in several areas.

In her speech at RUSI, Cooper raised concerns that “Generative AI takes [the threat] to a whole new level”, citing both the case of Jaswant Singh Chail whose 2021 plot to kill Queen Elizabeth II was mobilised by an AI chatbot, and the appropriation of a “Meta large language model” by 4chan users. While only very few relevant cases exist, the emergent AI landscape presents a significant policy challenge, which at this stage only the EU has attempted to tackle comprehensively. The many threats posed by AI such as information manipulation, as laid out in ISD’s policy primer, will likely have a significant impact across public life and demand urgent attention.

From national to global challenges

In a year when a significant proportion of the globe goes to the polls, the UK shares many challenges with other parts of the world: democratic erosion, the global impact of major wars, emergent power struggles with hostile states and rising hate and polarisation facilitated by social media.

With recent elections in France, India and the EU, and forthcoming elections in the US, the global political landscape may look very different at the end of the year. As the hate, extremism and hostile state landscape grows, increasingly inter-connects and spreads transnationally, international cooperation on joint threats will become ever more vital. While the UK faces specific iterations of these increasingly diffuse challenges, any comprehensive strategy to tackle them must look across society and across borders.


‘Beyond Definitions: The Need for a Comprehensive Human Rights-Based UK Extremism Policy Strategy’ provides a policy roadmap for responding to the interconnected threats from hate, extremism and hostile state actor activity facing the UK, and is available here.

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