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15 February 2017

Diane Abbott is right – social media abuse will rob us of our best female MPs

If death threats are the price to pay for a seat in Parliament, the next generation of talented women will look elsewhere. 

By Julia Rampen

“I have never written about all this before,” the shadow Home secretary Diane Abbott said, about half way through a Guardian op-ed listing the racist abuse she receives on a daily basis:

“I am well aware that there are people who will deny it happens, others who seem to think that sexist abuse is the price women pay for being in public life, and some who just don’t care.”

As Abbott pointed out in her article, she is a parliamentary veteran, first elected in 1987. She holds the distinction of being the UK’s first black woman MP. She is no stranger to abuse. Her reason for writing about the subject now is because she perceives a new pushback against female and minority candidates – “the politics of personal destruction”. 

In the age of Twitter, it has become normal to measure your celebrity by the level of social media abuse you receive. But we have not yet learnt to distinguish the free speech dissenters from the bullies and thugs. 

Being cruel to power isn’t new. Back in 2001, the nation chuckled when a man threw an egg at the deputy Prime Minister, John Prescott. The egg-thrower’s girlfriend described him as a “placid lad”.

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Prescott famously punched the man back. And presumably the next generation of politicians calculated that a rogue egg was worth the risk (Ed Miliband was egged at my local south London market in 2013). 

But there is a difference between a moment of farcical dissent and the far more sinister campaigns that Abbott calls politics of personal destruction. 

Abbott receives death threats, rape threats, and a daily stream of racism. The abusers hide behind the internet’s cloak of anonymity. There is no opportunity to fight back.  

Another MP, Tulip Siddiq, told me how, when she worked for an MP a decade ago, a stranger regularly posted used razors to the office. “It’s easier now,” she remarked. “You don’t have to go to the effort of posting it.” Siddiq has also received death threats.

And MPs have to take these threats seriously. Jo Cox, who was murdered in June, was a victim of social media abuse before her death (although not from Thomas Mair). Luciana Berger was subject to an anti-Semitic campaign so bad that her harasser was jailed for two years. The weight of a court judgement underlines how damaging this abuse is. 

But there is another reason for identifying, calling out and prosecuting the online thugs. In her article, Abbott says she went into politics with the hope that other people of diverse backgrounds would follow. Why, she asks, would young women of today sign up for an incessant attack on their intelligence, looks and personality?

Indeed, one of the achievements of her generation has been to raise the expectations of younger women that they will be treated with respect in the workplace. The contrast with life as an MP has never been more stark. 

Those who want to become a public figure must equip themselves with a thick enough skin to deal with the scrutiny of strangers. But there is a difference between a rainstorm and a tsunami. If we want to attract the best to our Parliament, we need to fix the political culture first.