DANGER TO DEMOCRACY: Politicians and
activists want more action to ensure female lawmakers feel safe while doing their jobs
by LAUREN CODLING
A SURGE in the number of female politicians leaving parliament due to racist and sexist abuse could “interfere” with democracy, a senior shadow minister has warned.
The December general election announced last month has seen a number of lawmakers saying they would not stand for re-election. Many female politicians have blamed constant abusive threats as a major factor for their decision.
Culture secretary Nicky Morgan cited the “abuse of doing the job of a modern MP” as her reason for quitting, while Liberal Democrat Heidi Allen said she was “exhausted by the invasion into (her) privacy and the nastiness and intimidation that has become commonplace”.
Currently, of the 60 politicians not seeking re-election, 20 are women. A number of equality campaigners have pointed out that the female lawmakers stepping down are, on average, 10 years younger than their male counterparts.
Labour’s Dawn Butler, shadow secretary for women and equalities, said it was a “sad state of affairs” that abuse was driving politicians out of parliament.
“At the end of the day, that is interfering with our democracy,” she told Eastern Eye. “People do not feel safe enough to become politicians.”
Butler, who is currently campaigning for her Brent Central seat in north London, has faced abuse in her time as an politician. A 40-year-old woman was recently jailed after she followed Butler onto a London underground train last December and threatened to kill her.
She has also faced racist and misogynistic abuse on social media.
“There have been times when I’ve been in situations and I have felt at risk,” Butler admitted, adding that she has to regularly block and mute trolls on social media. Butler has also urged social media companies to be more proactive in dealing with abuse, including taking steps to ensure users are unable to use anonymous accounts.
A recent study conducted by the Commons’ Women and Equalities Committee revealed that a majority of female parliamentarians said that lack of progress on tackling violence against women in politics – including online abuse – impacted their inclination to stand for re-election.
Labour politician Shabana Mahmood, who is the candidate for Birmingham Ladywood, agreed the level of abuse was “deeply troubling”.
Urging more action to ensure political debates remain “respectful”, Mahmood acknowledged that women tended to find themselves at the “sharp end” of abuse.
“As a society, we have to get back to being able to disagree without making personal attacks, whether in person or from behind a computer keyboard,” she told Eastern Eye. “A healthy democracy needs healthy debate to thrive, which is how I always aim to engage with other politicians and local residents alike.
“It’s undeniable that our country is divided at the moment and these divisions won’t heal unless we learn how to disagree respectfully once again.”
British Future think tank director Sunder Katwala said the average parliamentarian retired after two decades in the Commons. Therefore, the share of women retiring should not be expected to match the overall proportion of women elected in 2019 – but rather to average around one in five, which was the proportion of female lawmakers in 1997-2010. However, he said more Conservative women tend to be retiring early.
“This, alongside the lower proportion of new ethnic minority candidates in 2019 selections, suggests that (prime minister) Boris Johnson needs to work harder to protect the positive shifts towards gender equality and ethnic diversity in the Conservative party over the last decade,” Katwala told Eastern Eye.
Dr Hannah White, deputy director for think tank Institute for Government, warned that the number of female politicians leaving parliament after a relatively brief time in office could potentially cause under-representation in the Commons.
She said: “We will be left with a less diverse and representative set of MPs if only the most thick-skinned or self-sacrificing are willing to put themselves forward for election.”