Brexit: intimidation of MPs cannot be tolerated

Attempts to intimidate and threaten MPs and journalists such as those we’ve seen at Westminster in recent weeks cannot be tolerated. They represent a threat to our democracy and as such must be taken seriously and stopped.

Democratic society relies on the rule of law and the acceptance that we settle our differences through debate, the ballot box and votes in our Parliaments, assemblies and council chambers. Our disagreements must be resolved within accepted parameters of openness and free speech. Free speech does not include the right to threaten and abuse.

Politicians always get it in the neck. So we should and it’s vital that constituents are able to express their views robustly. No MP or MEP I know has any problem with that. But what we’ve seen recently with attempts to intimidate MPs physically in the immediate precincts of Parliament goes beyond the acceptable. So does the wholesale abuse, much of it racist or misogynist, that floods the inboxes and feeds of MPs.

Intimidation is part of a far right agenda

I am very clear that much of what is happening now, including the co-ordinated abuse of Anna Soubury MP and the columnist Owen Jones by the far right is intended directly to affect the debate on Brexit. The very clear plan is to crank up the political climate to the point where some politicians buy into the view that should the British electorate be given the opportunity to change its mind on Brexit the result would be social conflict. Instead we are encouraged by some to appease the far right by accepting what they want to inflict on the country, we are to be put off making the argument that the 2016 referendum decision was mistaken and that the outcome promised will not be delivered and cannot be delivered without seriously damaging the future of a great many of the people we represent.

And do you seriously think that if democratic politicians cave in to this kind of action that the far right will stop there? Of course not. So the response plainly and simply must be to ensure the police have the resources to deal with this firmly.

Politicians need to address their own rhetoric

Politicians don’t always help themselves and the onus is on us to moderate our own statements. Some of the abuse directed at the Prime Minister by MPs of here own party during the past months has been well beyond appropriate. If politicians want to cool down the situation then they need to temper their own rhetoric.
The nature of political debate has changed with the influence of social media. Bedroom confined ‘keyboard warriors’ have a direct and instant channel to send vile messages to either their representatives, other political figures, celebrities and even the man or woman on the resident association message board. In my time as a councillor this stuff had just started but even then I was getting cases from people never involved in politics being seriously threatened online.

But sticking to politics for now, things have certainly got worse. Based on analysis of more than one million tweets, the University of Sheffield found that the number of abusive tweets about politicians more than doubled between the General Elections of 2015 and 2017.

These are messages that are not critiquing policy, party or political posturing. These are messages attacking MPs personally. For example, research by Amnesty International found that the Shadow Home Secretary Diane Abbott received 45% of all abusive tweets sent to female MPs in the six weeks before the 2017 General Election, many commenting on her race, weight or intellect.  In a speech to the House of Commons, Abbott revealed she gets threats of ‘rape and violence on a daily basis’, both delivered online and to her constituency office in Hackney.

Any intimidation of any representative is unacceptable

Equally having a go at Jacob Rees Mogg while he was out with his children was entirely unacceptable. It goes beyond the tradition of peaceful protest - a right that must also be upheld. I could go on. Most of us have our own stories - we tend not to share them because for the most part you expect it and you don’t let it bother you - but that doesn’t make it right and when it involves your family it moves to another level.
Some say, “oh well, they don’t really mean it - it’s only words”. Oh yeah? It starts with words, but let’s remember where it goes. Jess Phillips MP told the media that she had installed a ‘panic room’ in her constituency office following threats to her and her staff. In 2010 Stephen Timms MP was stabbed at his advice surgery. Luciana Berger MP attended the recent Labour Party conference flanked by police protection after months of anti-Semitic threats. A neo-Nazi plot to kill Rosie Cooper MP was foiled. Jo Cox MP, stabbed to death while her attacker yelled “Britain First” was not so lucky.

Since the incidents with Anna Soubry and Owen Jones, 115 UK MPs have called on the police to improve their response to those abusive protestors outside Parliament. I have written to the five Chief Constables in South East England and the Chair of the National Police Chiefs’ Council urging them to take the security of elected representatives in their constituency activities seriously and asking for their views on combatting abuse in the online public space. Harriet Harman and Ken Clarke, as Mother and Father of the House have called for a ‘Speaker’s Conference’- a special cross-party inquiry into the abuse and harassment of MPs. Read Harriet’s excellent article from The Times here. The Speaker has also made representations on the matter.

Fund the police properly for the online age

The police have a tough job and under this Conservative Government insufficient resources to do their work. This chronic underfunding must be addressed and as society changes we must be prepared to fund the necessary efforts to ensure that democracy is protected and the public can expect the same standards of behaviour in public spaces online that they have come to expect in the physical world.

The police were slow to act in the first instance but have now agreed to step in. They have promised to deal ‘robustly’ with any instances of criminal harassment of public figures. But let’s be clear; security advice that simply advises ‘take you badge off and make yourself inconspicuous is not enough. In a democratic society parliamentarians must be able to go about their daily business openly, must be able to take positions of principle that may not be popular with some and must be able to speak out on whatever they believe important or matters of principle. There can be no room for moral equivalence that suggests ‘if (s)he says such things then they (s)he has to expect trouble. Blaming the victim is not acceptable. And have you noticed how many of these targeted MPs are women?

Very frequently those handing out the abuse do so behind the cloak of anonymity which became an online thing in the early days of the internet. Time to grow up. Politicians and public figures have to justify their statements - why should they be abused by keyboard warriors afraid to stand up for their views?

Text of John's letter to Chief Constables

To Chief Constables:

Kent Police
Hampshire Constabulary
Surrey Police
Sussex Police
Thames Valley Police

I write on two matters of concern:

  • the recent situation at Westminster where we have seen intimidation and harassment of parliamentarians and journalists in the course of their everyday business, and
  • the related matter of online harassment of individuals, in particular of women.

Attempted intimidation of elected representatives

The scenes that we have witnessed recently go well beyond what is acceptable in peaceful and democratic political protest. These actions are aimed at influencing the political process through intimidation and threats, thus curtailing free speech and limiting the democratic process. These tactics have been particularly virulent when directed at women - something I do not regard as a co-incidence.

The policing of the parliamentary Estate and the immediate surroundings of Westminster and Whitehall are a matter for the Metropolitan Police and I know representations are being made by The Speaker among others (see However, we have seen in recent years other politically motivated attacks on elected representatives and widespread attempts at intimidation online but also against the local offices of MPs, their homes and in the public space. I am also aware of serious threats made since the turn of the year against UK MPs. lt is easy to present these actions as the isolated activities of 'keyboard warriors' and 'unbalanced' individuals. However, the murder of an MP in her constituency and the stabbing of an MP at his constituency surgery should remind us how far these matters can go. In addition we as a society have failed to understand that the spaces of social media are, in fact, public spaces and on-line actions should be viewed in that context.

Simply advising MPs to 'take precautions' won't do. Over my lifetime the police have acted effectively to ensure that public order is maintained and the norms of democratic society in the UK are upheld. Ensuring that elected representatives of whatever political stripes can go about their daily business unhindered must be defended and, while I understand police resources are limited, I would urge you to ensure that intimidation and harassment will not be tolerated and seen not to be tolerated, otherwise the rule of law is seen to be threatened.

On-line harassment

Online intimidation is not restricted to fields of public affairs. lndividuals in many walks of life have come under threat, people with no public role nor any desire for one face intimidation and abuse that would not be acceptable in any physical space. While I have no firm statistics, as with MPs, it seems a disproportionate level of abuse is targeted at women.

Politicians and schools have a role to play, however, I am interested in how you see this new challenge. I am interested in your view as what reforms may be needed to ensure that the police are able to act effectively in new and challenging situations. Complimentary to any domestic reforms the European institutions are likely to consider this further in the future and so I want while my mandate exists to make representations on this matter

I am especially interested in how you see the culture of online anonymity. l, and you, as public servants are expected to justify our comments and actions, yet individuals can harass others behind a cloak of anonymity in the online world - something that would be intolerable in the physical world. Online spaces are public spaces and maintaining public order has always been a matter of police concern.

Thank you for reading this letter. I await your comments with interest.

John Howarth MEP