MPs reveal scale of abuse they face

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Media captionMPs on the abuse they faced during the election campaign

Standing for Parliament in the UK can mean facing death threats, online intimidation, verbal abuse and vandalism, according to MPs surveyed by BBC Radio 5 live.

All 650 MPs were contacted by 5 live and asked for their experiences, under condition of anonymity.

Of the 113 who replied, just over half – 51% – said the 2017 general election campaign had been the worst they had ever experienced.

This was especially true among Conservative MPs, with 41 out of 47 saying they had been targeted.

But nearly all of the MPs – 87% – said they had faced some form of abuse on the campaign trail.

“Does a man coming into my office threatening to bomb it count?” said one female Labour MP.

“Intimidated at hustings by large crowd shouting abuse,” a female Conservative MP reported.

A male MP, belonging to one of the other parties, said he had had a “bottle smashed on me”.

  • 77 Male MPs and 36 women took part in the survey, which was conducted in July
  • Party make-up of respondents: 47 Conservative, 45 Labour, 10 SNP and 11 belonging to other parties

British politics has always been a rough business – election candidates are used to being heckled at meetings or harangued in the street by voters with a grievance.

But the rise of social media has seen the insults take on a nastier and more personal edge.

Women and ethnic minority candidates face the worst of it, according to the House of Commons authorities, who are trying to find ways to protect them.

A Commons spokesman said: “The increasing levels of abuse and threats made against Members of Parliament, their staff and families, are unacceptable.

“No one should have to endure this as ‘part of the job’, and we take this problem extremely seriously.”

He said MPs were offered advice on keeping themselves safe and work was under way to provide personal security training. They were also given advice on safer use of social media.

But responsibility for the safety of MPs away from Parliament was down to local police forces.

Three-quarters of the MPs who replied reported examples of online abuse in the 2017 campaign.

“Graphics with false images of false expenses claims, death threats,” one female SNP MP told 5 live.

“Social media campaign and co-ordinated Facebook attacks,” said a male Labour MP.

“Misogynist comments, sexual abuse. My children saw this and were disgusted,” said a female Conservative MP.

Death threats

The abuse on social media came from the public and members of rival parties, although 10 Labour MPs reported abuse from members of their own party.

A majority of the MPs surveyed – 64% – said women received more abuse than men.

Verbal abuse was reported by two-thirds of the MPs in the survey, with one male Labour MP saying he had been “called an IRA terrorist in front of my wife and seven-year-old boy”.

And there were several reports of death threats made to a candidate in person, with one female Conservative MP saying she had been “threatened to be put in a coffin”.

More than a third of the MPs said their campaign materials had been damaged or destroyed.

Most of them were Conservatives, who reported signs being ripped and posters being defaced with obscenities. Some of these are shown below, although the worst examples are too graphic to publish.

“Signs hammered in garden at 11pm at night waking children who are sleeping,” wrote one male Conservative MP.

One female Labour MP said she had had her windows “put in three times”.

Image copyright Sheryll Murray
Image caption Tory MP Sheryll Murray had her billboards defaced

Just over half of the MPs in the survey said they were not bothered by the abuse they received, although 9% said they had been “extremely upset” and 39% were “fairly upset”.

“I’m resigned to it – what upsets me is the impact on my staff and family,” said a female Labour MP.

‘Fight abuse’

A male Conservative MP told the survey: “It is very disappointing, but most importantly it has a profound effect on family and friends and undermines our democracy. Unfortunately I’ve got used to it.”

Nineteen of the MPs in the survey said they would not recommend standing for Parliament.

“Because you might get elected and then it really starts,” commented one Conservative man.

Image copyright Paula Sherriff
Image caption Labour’s Paula Sherriff was targeted by an abusive Facebook image

Others were in two minds – “I am seriously considering whether or not to stand next time and so am not sure if I would encourage others to stand,” a male MP belonging to one of the smaller parties told the survey.

“Depends on the person – would have to tell them if female being called a bitch etc is normal,” wrote a female Labour MP.

But the majority of those surveyed shared the view of another female Labour MP, who said: “Although it can be off-putting we can’t let it be a barrier to our democracy and need to do more to fight abuse.”

Many MPs said social media platforms like Facebook should do more to stamp out abuse, such as ending the anonymity of users, while others pointed the finger at the police for not taking it seriously enough.

“The police should not see it as a case of ‘all is fair in love and war’. Useless,” said one Conservative.

Others in the survey laid the blame firmly at the door of the media, for lowering the tone of political debate, while others said the parties did not do enough.

One Labour MP said: “Lots of it is down to the leaders of political parties – who are mostly ineffective. Particularly my own leader – he thinks it’s enough just to say ‘I condemn all abuse!’ He and his closest allies are blowing the dog whistle. It shouldn’t surprise them that the dogs are barking.”

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