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Abusing MPs is having a chilling effect on our democracy

Diane Abbott (left) and Anna Soubry (right) have been subjected to abuse. Credit: PA

I often give MPs a hard time. I question their facts and figures, I interrogate their spin. Sometimes, I even chase them down the street. But I’ve never knowingly made an MP cry.

Yet the line between accountability and abuse is now crossed on such a routine basis in our political culture that last night I saw an MP openly sobbing in the street.

She was passing me on the pavement, talking to her mum on the phone, when I waved hello. She hung up the call to speak to me, before her face crumpled and she began to cry.

Elections are stressful occasions for most MPs, particularly those in marginals. This one was clearly anxious about the necessary slog of getting her message out to her constituents - but it was the communication she was getting in return that was the real cause of her distress.

This week alone she estimates she’s received 2,000 abusive messages already, mostly via social media. Some nights she gets around 100 an hour. Among many things, they call her a “stupid, fat bitch”, or threaten her with rape or murder.

A few weeks ago she was on her way out of her office when she paused to pick up the phone. A constituent needed help with a family death. She stayed until 10pm that night to sort the issue, only for that same constituent to post abuse about her a few days later on a different topic.

I write about this not because we should feel any sympathy towards MPs about having to face the upcoming election (they serve at our will), but because we should all be deeply concerned about the way in which it is conducted. And I believe we now have concrete evidence that the level of abuse in our politics is having a chilling effect on democracy.

Nicky Morgan is stepping down as an MP. Credit: PA

In the past few days, over 50 MPs have decided to stand down at this election. That number itself isn’t particularly high compared to previous years, but what’s striking is how many cite the harassment they receive as a key reason to leave Parliament.

Last night the cabinet secretary Nicky Morgan became the latest to outline how the abuse she receives contributed to her decision to quit. And on Wednesday Heidi Allen described how her tipping point was a vindictive message about ‘killing a baby’, because she’d previously had an abortion. “You are available to be harassed 24 hours a day”, said Allen.

When I shared my account of the crying MP on Twitter last night, dozens of other MPs added their comments. Anna Soubry said a fifth person had been convicted last week of threatening to kill her. The former Deputy Prime Minister David Lidington, who’s also standing down, replied that the abuse was “appalling, but all too common”.

Much of that is thanks to social media. This morning the Shadow Home Secretary Diane Abbott (who has had more abuse than any other MP) called for an end to anonymous accounts online. Others have also suggested users should provide a real name and address before being allowed to post, to make them accountable for their words.

Heidi Allen is stepping down as an MP, citing abuse as one of the reasons. Credit: PA

Another factor is of course the intensely fractious state of our politics right now. Emotions are running high because much is at stake and Brexit is naturally a binary issue. MPs are blamed for the impasse in Parliament, and whatever side of the debate you are on that is causing huge frustration.

But a line continues to be crossed in our political debate. The words “fat”, “stupid” and “bitch” don’t contribute anything to the argument. They are purely abusive.

And this matters because we continually argue for our politics to be more representative - we need more women, more working class MPs, more people from ethnic minorities. Yet why would anyone from underrepresented groups - who often don’t come with a pre-prepared support network in Westminster - want to get involved when they see the level of vitriol they’d have to endure? Aside from their background, do we only want thick-skinned, robotic MPs, or do we want space for thinner-skinned, empathetic types too?

So yes there is a lot of anger at MPs. Yes, some MPs have let voters down in the past. But shouting abuse at them is not the way to get better ones.