Shropshire Star

Is abuse towards MPs getting out of hand?

A little girl asks her father: "Why do all fairytales begin 'Once upon a time?'"

People are hiding behind the anonymity of their keyboards to stir up hate, say some MPs

"They don't," replies her father wearily. "Most of them begin: 'If I am elected'."

It is fair to say that the Great British public has a somewhat sceptical attitude towards politicians. As a general rule, this is a healthy part of our parliamentary democracy, but are there signs that it is now going too far?

Last month, 27-year-old Zakariyya Farah was jailed for 15 months after being found guilty of leaving abusive voicemail messages for Telford MP Lucy Allan. And if a new survey of MPs is anything to go by, this is far from an isolated case.

This year's General Election was the nastiest and dirtiest yet, according to MPs who responded to a survey by BBC Radio 5. Of the 113 who took part, 87 per cent said they had been targeted in some way or another, with Conservative MPs being particularly likely to subjected to abuse.

And one only needs to look at the case of Labour MP Jo Cox, who was murdered by right-wing extremist to understand why some MPs might be concerned for their safety.

One female Labour MP, when asked if she had been subjected to intimidation, replied: "Does a man coming into my office threatening to bomb it count?"

Another MP said he had a bottle smashed on him.

Shrewsbury & Atcham MP Daniel Kawczynski is not surprised by the findings of the report, saying that on one occasion in the run-up to the May election, he had been forced to abandon an event in the town's Pride Hill after being surrounded by anti-hunt protesters.

"That made it very difficult for the public to engage with us, and after a while we had to abandon that particular morning's campaigning," he says.

During the campaign, Mr Kawczynski also saw some of his posters defaced with swastikas, something that he found particularly offensive given his family's own experience at the hands of the Nazis during the Second World War.

"I travelled to Poland to receive an award on behalf of my great, great uncle who died along with his wife and daughter protecting Jewish friends and neighbours," he says.

"I take exception to having Conservative posters daubed with swastikas, that was an evil regime which killed members of my family."

Mr Kawczynski says MPs have always been a target for disgruntled members of the public but whereas in the past they might have written letters to newspapers which would have filtered out abusive or libellous comments, many people will today go on social media which offers no such safeguards.

He says many MPs – particularly women – have been subject to particularly unpleasant and repeated online abuse.

In July it was announced that the committee on standards in public life will look at the nature of the problem of intimidation, considering the current protections and measures in place for candidates. Its findings will be reported back to the prime minister.

Cabinet Office minister Chris Skidmore says harassment cannot be tolerated and the integrity of the UK's democracy and public service must be upheld.

Research by Amnesty International found that Labour's shadow home secretary Diane Abbott received more abuse on Twitter than any other female MP in the run-up to the General Election, accounting for 45 per cent of all abusive messages over the six weeks before the election.

Of the 140,000 tweets mentioning the Labour MP’s Twitter handle, one in 20 were classified as abusive, according to the data.

Miss Abbott says that many of the messages she received actually contained very little political content, and were simply personal abuse.

“I welcome scrutiny, and I welcome engagement, and I welcome debate," she says. "That’s why I was so positive about these online platforms.

“But the problem is when people are not engaging in debate or scrutiny but just showering you with abuse — [saying] that you are a n*****, that you are a prostitute, threats against your safety.

“It’s just abuse which has no political content and which actually people wouldn’t say in a meeting or to your face. I think the distinction between abuse and genuine political debate is, would they say it if they met you in the street? No, they wouldn’t."

Miss Abbott says abuse of MPs is not new, but that it has been "turbo charged" by the speed and anonymity of social media. She added that male MPs get abuse "but it is much worse for women".

However, Mr Kawczynski says the Labour grassroots organisation Momentum must also take a share of the responsibility for stoking up tensions.

"I think we ought to celebrate diversity of opinion, I think we ought to celebrate the fact that we have different views about the direction of our country," he says.

"But what Momentum is doing is spreading a vitriolic hatred of for the Conservative Party.

"I disagree with the Labour Party and what it stands for, but I would never spread hatred about the Labour Party."

Labour Party chairman Ian Lavery, though, has accused the Conservatives of raising tensions with its use of social media during the campaign.

"The Conservative Party perpetrated this on an industrial scale by spending millions of pounds to post highly personalised and nasty attack adverts on voters' Facebook timelines without their permission," he said in a letter to Conservative Party chairman Sir Patrick McLoughlin.

Mr Kawczynski says while it is right and proper that politicians of all parties should be held to account, and have their policies tested through vigorous debate, there is no place for tribal hatred in politics.

He says he worries it will deter talented people, with a very worthwhile contribution to make, from going into politics.

"Most MPs, whatever party they belong to, are trying their best for their country," he says.

"I have got a lot of very good friends in the Labour Party. You can and should build up friendships people from other parties, there is more that unites us than divides us."