Heidi Allen has announced she is standing down at the election, citing the culture of abuse and intimidation in politics as one of the reasons. In a letter to her constituents, she writes: ‘I am exhausted by the invasion into my privacy and the nastiness and intimidation that has become commonplace. Nobody in any job should have to put up with threats, aggressive emails, being shouted at in the street, sworn at on social media, nor have to install panic alarms at home. Of course, public scrutiny is to be expected, but lines are all too regularly crossed and the effect is utterly dehumanising. In my very first election leaflet I remember writing “I will always be a person first and a politician second” – I want to stay that way.’
Allen is a slightly special case, moving as she has through a number of different political incarnations in the past year. But her point is one MPs across the spectrum tend to agree with: politics is getting nastier, to the point that some members are wondering why they bother. A number of those standing down at this election have either cited the political climate publicly or say privately that it is a big reason why they are ready to move on. Coupled with a sense of powerlessness over the Brexit mess, some MPs – and perhaps more worryingly, candidates – are concluding that they might achieve more elsewhere. There are many members who have endured sustained stalking campaigns and terrifying threats who have chosen not to speak out about them because they fear it will lead to an escalation.
Whenever MPs complain about abuse, there’s a certain type of armchair sneerer who likes to pop up and accuse them of playing ‘the victim card’. It is certainly the case that there’s no point in going into politics if you’re so sensitive that you cannot bear your ideas being challenged. But what’s different today is that MPs are receiving threats to their personal safety and that of their families. As Allen alludes to in her letter, they are having to respond to this increasingly toxic climate with ever more stringent security measures: most now have their letterboxes blocked up, for instance, or equipped with a special flame and corrosive substance-retardant bag. They are advised not to open the door, but to check who is calling through an intercom.
Now, these measures are of course pretty mild compared to the security surrounding those at the top of government: Home Secretaries haven’t had much freedom for a good long while. But the fact is that life as even a lowly backbench MP has changed recently. Not only do you have to explain to your children why your home needs fortifying once you’ve been elected, but you also have to expect a daily torrent of online – and offline – abuse from people who may even be in your own political party.
We might not feel sorry for those who’ve chosen this life, even if we think it’s a bit unfair on their wider families. But it’s worth remembering that the loss to politics doesn’t just stop at the MPs who choose to stand down. Being an MP is now a pretty off-putting life for a lot of public-spirited types who nevertheless don’t really fancy receiving regular death and rape threats. This narrows the pool of good people trying to get into politics, and may mean that those left have a certain personality type better suited to dealing with abuse, but perhaps rather more lacking in empathy and self-awareness. We don’t want politicians so thin-skinned they can’t do their jobs, but neither do we want ones with a rhino hide so thick they’re not very good at appreciating what it’s like for others, including those in their constituency surgeries, to suffer.
The problem is that it’s not clear how to calm things down, bar various earnest pleas for people to get on better. Boris Johnson believes that the political climate will improve once Brexit is out of the way (which doesn’t bode all that well for the looming pre-Brexit election), but threats and intimidation towards politicians have been rising internationally, too, and much of the abuse that MPs deal with has its root in disagreements over other matters including party loyalty. In 2017, for instance, Tory candidates found themselves the victims of vandalism and threats simply because they were Conservatives.
Politics has become infected by a ‘just war’ mentality, where people on all sides believe it is acceptable to behave unconscionably to those they disagree with. They conflate fighting ideas with fighting a person physically, and dehumanise their opponents to the extent that they end up ‘deserving’ the abuse because they are wrong. Urging people to ‘just get on’ isn’t going to cut it: they often believe themselves to be peaceable because they are kind to those of a similar persuasion. Anyone who wants to ensure a good supply of ‘normal’ people coming into parliament is going to have to work out how to unpick the ‘just war’ mentality, otherwise we will lose far more from our politics than just individual MPs.