Following the murder of Sir David Amess the country has finally started to wake up to the abhorrent abuse MPs receive on a daily basis. Though I’m not exactly sure why we started debating social media etiquette straight after a terror attack, I am glad this problem is getting some much needed airtime.
Since joining Guido Fawkes I have had the privilege of meeting MPs from both sides of the House of Commons. While they may not share much in terms of political beliefs, they all have one thing in common – they have all been victims of online abuse.
But though it’s entirely understandable that parliamentarians have been the focus of attention since Sir David’s death, we shouldn’t forget the staff who are often the ones dealing with insulting and threatening messages directed at MPs. Though abuse technically isn’t aimed directly at them, there is no doubt that reading death threat after death threat has an impact. And it’s not all emails and phone calls. Sometimes, frighteningly, staffers get confronted in the street.
This was the experience of Tory MP Matt Vickers’ constituency staffer, who had death threats shouted at him as he left the office, an incident he understandably described as leaving him ‘pretty shaken’. His experience is a reminder that although the parliamentary estate has extensive security, aides working in local constituency offices have nothing like that level of protection. Nor was that incident the first time Vickers’ office have had to deal with such threats. One angry anti-vaxxer threatened to ‘send him [Vickers] to the gallows’ over his support for Covid-19 vaccines.
How can staffers dismiss threats against their MP when they are spelt out in emails? Another Conservative MP, Brendan Clarke-Smith, explains that one person ‘threatened to cut the brakes’ on his car, while another called him a Nazi and said he prayed for his children to die.
Sadly, though unsurprisingly, emails of that nature are fairly common. Though of course most are empty threats, for staffers there is always a fear – no doubt heightened by recent events – that an unhinged assailant could turn up to a surgery or knock at the office door. After all, it’s publicly available information, and surgeries are very well advertised. It’s no great surprise that, as one of Vickers’ staff puts it, there is an ‘appetite to see at least some kind of police protection for publicly advertised surgeries’.
It’s a similar story for those working in Westminster. One staffer who wishes to remain anonymous admitted that she feels ‘unsafe when leaving the estate if there’s a protest on’.
There’s a broader point here about attracting good people to work in politics. MPs staff are often young people just starting out in their careers. But most graduate jobs involve a reasonable salary and a pension scheme, not death threats and ceaseless Twitter abuse. You could hardly blame people for thinking twice about working for an MP if that is a core part of the job description. According to Robbie, who also works for an MP, the job leaves many people feeling ‘burnt out’ and causes ‘many [to] leave due to stress’.
For many who work in politics, Sir David’s death has intensified their concerns about safety. Some staffers say they fear the attack on Sir David, and the murder of Jo Cox in 2016 will inspire ‘copycat killers’ – a concern also shared by the former head of Prevent, Sir Peter Fahy..
Politics has grown increasingly volatile in the last few years. Social media accounts have empowered lunatics to make threats they would never otherwise utter. Politicians have been dehumanised, and senior politicians like Angela Rayner calling opponents ‘scum’ definitely didn’t help matters.
The experiences of staffers has been criminally under-reported. These people do an important and often thankless job, and at the same time they are bearing the brunt of the toxic atmosphere of our politics. So while attention is focused on the safety and mental well-being of MPs, let’s not forget the thousands of others who work for them.
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