Brexit and Bulletproof Vests: Why Heckling in the House Must Stop

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Happening Now Wednesday, October 16, 2019 View Count = 866

Brexit and Bulletproof Vests: Why Heckling in the House Must Stop

When it comes to heckling and the safety of politicians within government, Louise Cockram, a PhD candidate in the Department of Political Science at Carleton University, explores the reasons why it's a growing problem specifically within the British House of Commons, but also in Canada and the United States.


Concerns about the safety of MPs have become headline news in the UK. Following the return of the British House of Commons a couple of weeks ago, MP Paula Sheriff read a powerful statement in the House about threats to her safety as an elected member. In particular, Sherriff raised concerns about how the charged rhetoric used in the House galvanizes public sentiment against MPs. Sherriff has since received death threats in response to her comments and is far from the only MP to be subject to such abuse.

In the UK, political tensions are particularly fraught over Brexit. Through statements in the House, Prime Minister Boris Johnson has re-labelled the legislation to prevent a no-deal Brexit “the surrender bill” in an effort to make opponents of Brexit seem disloyal to the UK. This strategy has led some constituents to label MPs who wish to remain in the EU as traitors.  Aggressive language used in the House is mirrored in interactions between MPs and their constituents. Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s dismissive response to Sherriff in the House (“I’ve never heard such humbug in my life”) does not help matters.

Of course, as a study by Amnesty International points out, safety threats have always been a concern for MPs, especially for women and people of colour. Being a woman of colour compounds the issue. Amnesty International found that Diane Abbott, the first black female MP to be elected in the UK, received half of the social media abuse directed at women MPs during the UK election in 2017. Much of the abuse directed at Abbott was both misogynistic and racist, she herself has said:

“[The abuse] is highly racialised and it’s also gendered because people talk about rape and they talk about my physical appearance in a way they wouldn’t talk about a man. I’m abused as a female politician and I’m abused as a black politician.”

In that same study, Amnesty also calculated that during the 2017 election, women MPs of colour received 35% more online abuse than their white colleagues. However, threats to MPs often go beyond social media abuse. According to a survey of MPs conducted by the BBC, during the 2017 election, female MPs received bomb threats and had their windows smashed. For some MPs, both male and female, these violent threats have extended to their family. MPs do not take death threats lightly; their worst fears were realized after MP Jo Cox was killed by a member of the far-right days before the Brexit referendum in 2016. Since Cox’s tragic death, many constituency offices in the UK have put stringent security measures in place including security cameras and personal safety alarms for MPs and their staff. Again, these threats are felt most acutely by women and especially women of colour.

Worryingly, the safety concerns of MPs also raise questions about diversity in politics. For a variety of reasons, it is hard enough for non-traditional candidates to run for office, including women, people of colour, members of the working class and people with disabilities. Why undertake the (already) rocky path to run for office when you and your family are likely to receive death threats and racist/misogynist abuse? One of the MPs who responded to the BBC survey lamented that she would have to tell future female candidates that “…being called a bitch is normal.” If we want to get serious about encouraging new voices in politics then we cannot take the safety of our elected representatives lightly. Yes, we need to keep our MPs accountable and ask them hard questions. But we also have to remember that MPs are human and that their job is a hard one.

MPs and political leaders like Boris Johnson have a part to play in creating more civility in politics. The standing orders of the House regulate the tone of debate for a reason. While other institutions, including the media, set the tone of political debate, MPs have the ability to wind up public sentiment for good or for ill. If MPs use charged language like “traitor” or “surrender” in the House then this gives license to those outside of Parliament to repeat these insults. Indeed research in the US has shown that people who are predisposed to aggression are more likely to enact political violence in response to heated rhetoric from politicians.

Canada is not immune to the spectre of political violence – last week Prime Minister Justin Trudeau was forced to wear a bullet-proof vest at a campaign rally due to an unspecified threat to his safety.

The Samara Centre’s research on heckling in the Canadian House of Commons shows that the tenor of debate is a problem in Canada. As suggested in “Cheering or Jeering: Members of Parliament open up about civility in the House of Commons”, there are many improvements that MPs and the House can adopt to curb toxic and heated political rhetoric.

Instead of engaging in partisan attacks towards the opposing side, or chasing a 30-second sound bite for the news, MPs could frame questions in the House in a more direct and substantive way. In other words, MPs could focus on making good decisions rather than attacking MPs from other parties.  Further, the Speaker of the House could impose stricter penalties on MPs who abuse their position in the House to whip up (potentially violent) outrage against the opposing side. MPs would be less likely to launch attacks against their opponents if the Speaker were to rule their question/statement out of order or eject them from the chamber as a consequence.

Be nice to your MP, and through supporting Samara’s work, encourage MPs to be nice to each other.

Louise Headshot
Louise Cockram is a PhD candidate in the Department of Political Science at Carleton University. Her dissertation explores the orientation that newly elected MPs receive in Canada and the UK. She recently spent six weeks doing field research for her dissertation with the help of the Crick Centre at the University of Sheffield.

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