Call for inquiry into growing intimidation against MPs

Speaker Sir Lindsay Hoyle spoke recently of the 'frightening threats' MPs face. Credit: PA

There have always been hugely controversial issues that have caused people to get very angry with MPs.

I remember being tasked on one of my first days working for the Observer newspaper 20 years ago with going through furious letters from readers shocked that the paper had just backed the Iraq War.

And if they were that angry with the Observer, you can imagine how they felt about the Labour politicians and PM making the decisions.

So, there was abuse. But even then - and even over the hugely contentious decision to support the US in the Iraq war - it was nothing like we see now.

That is why the so-called "mother of the House of Commons" - its longest serving woman, Harriet Harman - is now calling for a Speaker's Conference into the issue.

This would effectively be a cross-party inquiry, led by the Speaker Lindsay Hoyle, into how to guarantee that MPs can go about their work without threat, harassment or violence. Harman argued that if intimidation is resulting in MPs not speaking in debates or signing motions then it is "undermining democracy".

She and Ken Clarke - back when he was the father of the House - had recommended this in the past but she said: "The case for it has only got stronger"

I've watched it evolve over two decades, with key turning points that seemed to harden views about MPs, perhaps the first big one was the MPs expenses scandal in 2009.

But even after that, we didn't know how bad it would get.

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I'd known Jo Cox before she decided to become an MP as a lovely friend and wonderful mother.

I suspect she would never have believed that among the threats she was walking into with that job was a threat to her life. Surely not for David Amess, either.

And yet these days MPs are given hefty security briefings, with some having panic buttons installed in their offices and homes, some advised to stop offering open, constituency surgeries, some seeing individuals prosecuted for death threats.

It is clear that the conflict in the Middle East has intensified the situation for MPs, and there have been some pretty intimidating moments for a number of Labour frontbenchers.

Although the idea that this is somehow being driven by Muslims is simply wrong - and the levels of Islamophobia on social media that seem to have been unleashed - deeply worrying.

Keir Starmer was trying to avoid a huge rebellion in the Commons this week when he urged the Speaker to allow a vote on Labour's ceasefire amendment.

But it is also true that he felt that allowing Labour MPs to express their support for a ceasefire (which many would not have done if only the SNP motion had stood because they disagreed with some of the language) would reduce levels of abuse.

But talking to MPs it is clear that this isn't about one issue, it is about a bigger societal shift that has resulted in hostilities being raised around almost every contested issue.

As Jess Phillips made clear (describing the levels of Islamophobia being displayed currently as "sickening") if there is bullying she has faced, it is no more for this than for many other issues.

I've had MPs tell me that they've faced intense abuse over how they voted on the sewage crisis.

I know of one who has had to move their family out of their constituency because of local anger about the political party they belong to.

And then there was Brexit.

That was when I first came across the scale of death threats being thrown at Labour's Diane Abbott, revealing some of the messages that were being sent to her during that tense period.

It was Cox's death that made her realise she had to take the correspondence seriously, as she revealed that her staff no longer let her walk alone around her constituency.

I asked Labour peer Tom Watson - who was an MP for many years - if he felt there had been a dramatic shift and he said there was, perhaps intensified by the impact of social media.

That allows people to quickly organise protests (now a Facebook post, where 25 years ago, it might have taken phone calls and posters) and to exist in an echo chamber in which their anger can be quickly amplified.

Social media has brought pile-ons, and sometimes violent misinformation.

Speaking to Watson, he suggested that many MPs would not encourage their children to follow in their footsteps.

"The pressure, the workload, the collective abuse is so great on MPs now, I often think I would question whether I would want to be an MP if I was starting out again today," he said.

"It is intolerable."

He argued that "the language, the rhetoric, the tone on any issue really matters now", suggesting that while MPs may have had walkouts of the Chamber in the 1970s they weren't as instant and dramatic as now, with everyone watching live.

Former Labour deputy leader Tom Watson called the abuse MPs face 'intolerable'. Credit: Dominic Lipinski/PA

Harman says that protest that seeks to show strength of opinion and attempts to change minds through argument is, of course, acceptable. "But trying to change MPs' actions, through fear, is not."

She also said there was a need to distinguish between the resilience expected from and MP and what is expected from their family - including children and elderly relatives.

For Harman this is a "red line" and why she is so concerned about demonstrations at peoples' homes. These happened much less often in the past - but were not unheard of. In fact, in 2008 Fathers4Justice scaled onto her roof in 2008.

She also argued that some MPs were vulnerable - with mobility disabilities, limited vision, or perhaps pregnant - and for them - being jostled is an additional threat.

And she felt it - like Watson - that things were much worse now, partly because of the targeting of homes, partly because of abuse fuelled via social media - but perhaps most of all, because two colleagues have been murdered, so the threats cannot be dismissed.

One thing many MPs have told me is that the Speaker Lindsay Hoyle is genuinely very passionate and very focused on this issue.

On the very day that he made the decision to let Labour have an amendment on the SNP's Israel and Gaza motion, which he accepts was a mistake, he had met MPs including the Conservative Tobias Ellwood about this issue.

Ellwood's home had been targeted by pro-Palestine protesters.

The shame in this is that it is a trend that will almost certainly make some people, who might have made very good MPs, choose alternative careers.

I loved hearing former education secretary Estelle Morris recently describe resigning during an A-level scandal because she was too thin-skinned.

But she said that was what made her a good politician - that she was able to listen to people's concerns - and feel them.

It is important that politics keeps attracting people like her. And Harman clearly agrees - saying - "you shouldn't need the hide of a rhino to be an MP but that is what it feels like now."

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