'Abuse is virtually constant': female MPs speak about the threats they face

As Boris Johnson is criticised for his divisive comments, MPs shed light on the intimidation they have suffered

Boris Johnson on Wednesday night sparked a tide of criticism by dismissing suggestions that his rhetoric was dangerous in the current climate and claiming the best way to honour the memory of murdered MP Jo Cox was to “get Brexit done”. The Guardian spoke to female MPs about the intimidation they face, including Paula Sherriff – whose speech about Cox and the threats she receives was dismissed as “humbug” by the prime minister in the House of Commons.

Paula Sherriff, Labour MP for Dewsbury

‘I have had so many, too many, threats to detail’

Paula Sherriff.
Paula Sherriff. Photograph: Nicola Tree/Getty Images

“I have had so many, too many, threats to detail. Threats on my life. Rape threats. Since I confronted the prime minister on language, we have already had to report two or three to the police. You just can’t take any chances.

“The abuse is virtually constant, certainly on social media. It does peak and trough according to what’s going on in parliament. It started with the referendum. Brexit really seems to have empowered some people who feel this sort of language, and these sorts of threats, have become legitimised.

“It can be tough. Let’s be absolutely clear, we are very resilient. I reject those saying we are snowflakes and weak. Quite the opposite. We are very, very tough. To be a female MP, certainly in a marginal seat, isn’t easy. The vast majority of us accept robust debate comes as part of our role, as well as constructive criticism. Unfortunately, so many cross the line with threats of violence, and sexual violence, and some are really offensive. I have had so many just this afternoon. One said ‘you fat twat’.

“It can be wearing. You try to balance it against the good work you are doing and the supportive messages. You try to remember these people are quite sad really, keyboard warriors who take to the computer and start sending these toxic rants.

“I think you become a little bit inured to it. You must, because when I tell people outside politics that I probably had over 1,000 messages overnight, and maybe 200 were really, really offensive, people respond: ‘Oh my God’. Genuinely, I am quite matter-of-fact about it.

“It certainly doesn’t shock me in the way it might have done three years ago when I did sometimes cry when I saw them. But now I rarely do. Now, it makes me feel angry, and it makes me feel really sad about where we are as a society, because I don’t want the widespread feeling that it’s just OK to abuse your MP, or indeed anybody in public office.

“I do fear with an election looming, it could get worse. I think everybody does. Jess Phillips tweeted that she is not worried about an election, she is worried that somebody will kill her. You have to ask, what the hell is going on?”

Tulip Siddiq, Labour MP for Hampstead and Kilburn

‘The abuse comes in all forms’

Tulip Siddiq.
Tulip Siddiq. Photograph: Felix Clay/The Guardian

“Abuse is directed pretty much at all politicians. But if you are also female and from an ethnic minority background, the abuse has a different angle. And that has become worse since the referendum.

“You are not just a ‘traitor’, you are a ‘coloured traitor’. It’s not just about ‘betraying’ the country, it’s about ‘betraying the country that gave you a safe home’. And then the old chestnut ‘go home’; ‘If you’re not going to deliver Brexit, go home’.

“The language people use matters. It matters that in the chamber the language [is] of traitors, of surrendering, of betrayal. But the language outside [the chamber], such as ‘letterboxes’, about painting the referendum as a proxy vote on immigration, that matters as well.

“The abuse comes in all forms. It’s not just from the general public, it’s from the media as well. One article was headlined: ‘Where do her loyalties really lie?’ I was born in London, I’m a politician in London, I grew up in London. What do you mean where do my loyalties really lie?

“The abuse is on Twitter, in emails and in letters. I have had death threats, and they have been reported to the police.

“There is no doubt that I am a lot more careful now than I was when I first started. That has a lot to do with the fact that Jo [Cox] was murdered. I think all of us were a little bit complacent before.

“Will an election make it any worse? Whether it’s an election, or a campaign, it’s about the tone that people from all sides take, especially at the top. The tone that the prime minister takes. It’s about the general conduct. I think at election time, yes, of course, there is heightened emotion. There is more scrutiny of politicians. I think things are so tense at the moment, that can an election make it get any worse? I don’t know.”

Rushanara Ali, Labour MP for Bethnal Green and Bow

‘Politics of hate has been allowed to take centre stage’

Rushanara Ali.
Rushanara Ali. Photograph: Bloomberg/Bloomberg via Getty Images

“Last year, I received one of those ‘Punish a Muslim’ letters which a number of people received. It contained a red liquid substance. It was horrible. I had to call the parliamentary police, who brought in a specialist team.

“I wasn’t allowed to leave my office for a couple of hours while the liquid was analysed. The perpetrator was recently jailed for 12 years. When these things happen, it’s hugely disruptive in all sorts of ways and all you want to do is just put it behind you and get on with the job but, equally, I feel we need to speak out about these threats.

“Threats and intimidation are not new to me – I’m dealing with a very serious case at the moment which is with the CPS – but it has increasingly become commonplace for so many of us across parliament.

“They are now even more widespread, and how could it be otherwise? We have a prime minister using language deliberately designed to incite violence and hatred.

“A lack of a moral compass among political leaders is dangerous, and yet the prime minister is leading the charge, deliberately causing chaos and putting people’s lives at risk. That’s what really worries me.

“There are no boundaries now: the politics of hate has been allowed to take centre stage. Once we start to drive a wedge between people and bring the language of the far right into the mainstream, it becomes extremely difficult to undo the damage.

“Since the 2016 referendum, it does feel like threats have become more serious and more dangerous. What worries me most now is that we’ve got certain public figures amplifying these tensions: it’s one thing dealing with people directly threatening you but quite another when their hatred and anger is fuelled by political rhetoric.”

Luciana Berger, Liberal Democrat MP for Liverpool Wavertree

‘The threats are never-ending’

Luciana Berger
Luciana Berger Photograph: Dan Kitwood/Getty Images

“The threats come all the time. Because I’m Jewish and a young woman, I have always had a disproportionate level of it but it’s got worse. My security has been considerably ramped up to protect me physically and I try to insulate myself against the online abuse by being careful when I look at my emails, Facebook or my Twitter streams. But the threats are never-ending: you can’t avoid them altogether.

“The threats range from sinister and abusive to physically threatening. Ninety percent of the perpetrators are men but sometimes you can’t tell: I got an email the other week to my parliamentary office that had been through such sophisticated malware that the police couldn’t trace where it had come from.

“We have to report threats to the police at least once a week. They called me yesterday about an ongoing case and I had to ask them to tell me which specific one they were calling about, there are so many. There have been six people convicted for harassment and threats directed at me, and there are more cases in the pipeline. Two people have been sent to prison, one of them for four years, one was given community service and one a suspended sentence.

“The threats are toxic and they permeate our parliamentary debates. That’s the norm today and it’s given permission to those outside the chamber to amplify their hatred and abuse.

“We have a prime minister and attorney general who boom toxic, divisive soundbites that are immediately posted on social media by the far right. It’s a deliberate and planned strategy: someone behind the scenes is saying this will create the chaos we need to get the policies through that we want.”


As told to: Amelia Hill and Caroline Davies

The GuardianTramp

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