The circumstances surrounding the election of Jared O’Mara as Sheffield Hallam’s first-ever Labour MP remain under the spotlight in the wake of controversy over misguided comments he posted on web forums and allegations about his conduct towards women.
After the initial outcry the focus has shifted to who already knew about the accusations of misogyny, homophobia and sexism, and when. The Labour Party has withdrawn the whip from Mr O’Mara and is still conducting an investigation, but has come under fire for not acting earlier based on initial reports.
Even Nick Clegg – the former Liberal Democrat MP ousted in Hallam by O’Mara – is believed to have been aware of his challenger’s behaviour, but chose not to run a smear campaign at June’s snap election.
Mr O’Mara kept a low profile this week, and staff at his office in Broomhill were advising constituents that he would not be attending his MP advice surgery last Friday, although it is understood a session took place, apparently led by his caseworkers. The Liberal Democrats, anticipating a byelection, are picking a candidate, but in theory O’Mara could stay on as an independent, collecting his salary until the next national poll.
Either way, the saga is likely to have wider implications for the future of UK politics.
Dr Kate Dommett, a lecturer in the public understanding of politics at Sheffield University, said the incident raised ‘all kinds of long-term issues’.
“I think it’s now a test case of what we expect from political people in terms of their online engagement, and how much they should be forgiven for what they’ve done in the past,” said the academic.
Dr Dommett cast doubt on the idea Hallam voters should have spent more time familiarising themselves with their prospective MP. The Labour Party has admitted not interviewing Mr O’Mara properly ahead of his selection, a decision on which local party members had little say.
“He was selected in such a rush. It’s hard to expect members of the general public to have a role in getting to know their candidates, unless we move towards a system of open primaries, which is something parties have occasionally trialled, but not extensively.”
The scheme involves people in a particular area signing up for the chance to select candidates, rather than the process being the privilege of party members.
“The Conservatives did it with Sarah Wollaston,” said Dr Dommett.
Meanwhile Alan Reid, a senior lecturer in law at Sheffield Hallam University, said the British public should ‘absolutely’ brace themselves for further similar controversies.
“With the millennials growing up, it’s just second nature to them – you’ll just be on various sites and saying things,” said Mr Reid, an expert in social media law.
“They don’t really appreciate that this will come back to haunt them and it’s not ephemeral. I don’t imagine Jared O’Mara was sitting there 15 years ago and thinking ‘Oh, I’ll be in Nick Clegg’s old seat in 2017 being a Labour MP’. You don’t know where life leads you.”
Mr Reid said the Government’s digital economy bill would increase the ‘right to be forgotten’ – where online firms delete data on request – enshrining the principle in UK law, particularly for under-18s.
“The Government has also been talking about Facebook and the other networks being ‘publishers’. That’s a non-starter, because they’re quite clearly not publishers, they’re just facilitators of communication.”
He advised internet users to practise ‘self-limitation’.
“Would you be happy for your mother or grandmother to read these comments? If not, maybe don’t post them.”
Asked whether the smart young Hallam students he encountered daily were more restrained with their online activity than O’Mara, Mr Reid said he had seen a ‘mixed picture’.
“In the law department there’s requirements of being a fit and proper person to be a solicitor. The students coming through now are already switched on to that, and are more circumspect and sensible about what they’re putting on. But there are some students who are still doing some crazy stuff and they don’t really care.
“I’ve got an 11-year-old who’s just started secondary school this year, and I’ve been impressed with the ICT training there is. Even a few years ago it wasn’t as consistent across all the schools. That’s a lot better now. So I think the next generation coming through are probably even more internet-savvy but also internet security and safety-savvy as well, which is really good for the future.”
The furore is a symptom of the ‘very personalised’ nature of politics today, said Dr Dommett.
“There is a real focus on political scandal and trying to discredit parties by focusing on the personalities of those involved rather than the policies parties are promoting.”
She said O’Mara encountered harsher criticism than the Great British Bake Off judge Paul Hollywood, who apologised when an old photo of him wearing a Nazi outfit to a party came to light earlier this year.
“It had some attention, but if you’re a politician the implications are huge. In a much more immediate sense we’re far less forgiving of our politicians.”
‘It’s going to put people off politics’
The consequences of the Jared O’Mara episode could be ‘quite scary for politics’, said Sheffield University lecturer Dr Kate Dommett.
“If he is forced to go and there now becomes a culture where anything you published online when you were a lot younger can have these huge repercussions, it’s going to put people off the idea of getting involved even more,” she said, but added: “The more recent allegations are a different kettle of fish.”
In June Mr O’Mara, who has cerebral palsy, was hailed as a different breed of politician because of his relatively young age of 35 and his background running a bar.
“Personality has a role in how we make decisions, so we shouldn’t completely ignore it,” said Dr Dommett. “But politics is about short-term and long-term, making substantive decisions about different visions on where the country should go. Sometimes you can lose sight of that.”