'I refuse to be scared off': MPs discuss personal safety concerns amid rise in abuse

The outrage and anger on both sides of the Gaza conflict have spilled over in Britain and led to some MPs being subjected to abuse and worrying threats. ITV News Deputy Political Editor Anushka Asthana reports

Labour's Dawn Butler and Tory Tobias Ellwood are both agreed on one thing: being an MP in 2024 is nothing like when they first got their respective jobs - almost 20 years ago.

Butler describes 2005 as so much freer, when constituents could just pop into the office for a chat and surgeries would be open - drop-ins that would stretch over a day.

Ellwood says there was the "rough and tumble" of political debate, "but I didn't have to look over my shoulder".

Does he have to look over his shoulder now, I ask?

"Always, all the time, everywhere I go," he says. "Today is very different."

In the face of a clear rise in risks for MPs, Speaker Lindsay Hoyle is said to be considering how to achieve a cross-party consensus on how politicians and parties conduct themselves in an election campaign.

He is said to be keenly aware of the risks to MPs when robust political debate slips over into personalised attacks.

Many are concerned that, in recent weeks and months, this pressure has intensified, and fear that, too often, attempts to influence, argue and persuade MPs are turning into attempts to intimidate them.

The sheer physical risk to MPs has been apparent for some time. I knew Jo Cox before she became a politician - when she was a new mum, like me, and a friend.

Who could have imagined the nightmare that she would face: being killed outside her constituency office by a far right extremist. Or later, David Amess by a Jihadist.

But still I was surprised by what I found when I spent time with Butler and Ellwood, and when my colleague spoke to Mike Freer. How is it that we've reached a place when MPs feel this insecure about their safety?

I've been reporting on politics and policy since 2003, and have been based in Parliament since 2009. The shift has been dramatic.

This isn't the first time I've looked into the question of MPs security, but it is the first time that the fears have felt quite so widespread - with more and more MPs carrying personal alarms, and hiring security to protect them when they have open sessions for voters.

Have you heard our new podcast Talking Politics? Every week Tom, Robert and Anushka dig into the biggest issues dominating the political agenda…

In Butler's case there have been five convictions - four for malicious communications and one involving jail time after someone threatened to kill her on public transport.

One of her staff members - Lee Skevington - described one incident in the 2019 general election, when he had to physically push out a constituent shouting for Butler with a golf club.

Outside, he used the club to smash on the window of the constituency office that they have now closed because of security fears.

Butler said it made the job less fun and would certainly put others off. She argued that the role might not be right for younger people as it could harm their mental health.

She said: "I have to be aware every second of every day."

Asked if she was scared, she said: "It is scary but I refuse to be scared off by them, because that is their intention to scare me and silence me."

She said she would not think twice about saying something, but was always braced for the abuse when she did make a comment.

Butler showed us a stream of racist, online abuse, and said her "best friend" - London Mayor Sadiq Khan - had suffered even worse.

Tobias Ellwood. Credit: PA

This issue of MP abuse has been highlighted by a number of recent events, including revelations about racism aimed at Diane Abbott.

Another issue that has shone the light on this is the aftermath of the October 7 attacks and protests at Israel's fierce retaliation.

On some occasions, MPs have claimed to feel intimidated, arguing the right to protest and argue and influence opinion had slipped into trying to intimidate MPs into changing their votes.

Ellwood was told by police to stay away from his home in a Dorset village, after dozens of protesters shared his address online and then turned up.

He said that even if organisers wanted a peaceful protest, they would be unable to control who turned up.

Describing how the village WhatsApp group - which is usually used to report lost cats and misplaced Amazon packages - he added: "This has been happening steadily on a drumbeat week in, week out to MPs, particularly female MPs as well from a different guise, this wider issue of people finding cleverer and more aggressive ways to make their mark, to intimidate, to influence a Member of Parliament's positioning on a particular subject."

Meanwhile, Freer's husband urged him to leave politics after death threats and an arson attack on his office.

Although the arson attacks were not linked to political views, he said his husband said he didn't care about the motives, saying: "When you're dead, you're dead."

Dawn Butler. Credit: PA

There are three key things that seem to have driven this change: the first is an alarming loss of trust in our politicians, the second is an increasingly divisive politics, and the third is the advent and then massive growth of social media.

I've noticed trust erode slowly over time. There was a hit to trust in government after the Iraq war and then the expenses scandal increased pressure on individual MPs.

But trust then spiralled downwards in the years after Brexit, Covid, Partygate and the mini-budget.

Recently, on ITV's Peston, we had data suggesting only 12% of people believe that politicians will tell the truth. That has since fallen to 9%.

Then there is the division of our post-Brexit, post-Trump world, with its extreme elements. It is in that context that social media has allowed some people to sink into their own echo chambers and fire out digital abuse behind the privacy of their keyboards.

Want a quick and expert briefing on the biggest news stories? Listen to our latest podcasts to find out What You Need To Know…