A few months ago a man walked into Paula Sherriff’s constituency office and threatened one of her caseworkers. “He said, ‘I’ve got a gun and I’m going to fire 29 rounds into you.’ Later it transpired that he had a long history of violence. The office had to be put on lockdown.” The man was arrested and life went on. But then, on the June 16, in the next-door constituency, Jo Cox was gunned down in the street. “Jo changed everything,” says Sherriff.
Since becoming MP for Dewsbury in 2015, Sherriff has become inured to a daily diet of rape and death threats. Such is the lot of your average female MP. But since Cox was shot, the threats have become harder to ignore. And, recently, the number of them streaming in has increased. There is a new group of abusers on the block, and, she says, “the frightening thing is it’s coming from our own side”.
Sherriff has been repeatedly called a “slut”, denounced as a “traitor” and threatened with deselection for not coming out in support of Jeremy Corbyn. “I’ve had one or two be physically threatening, ringing up the office effing and blinding.” One Labour party official from a neighbouring constituency has posted a picture of John McDonnell, photoshopped to show him carrying an AK 47 on Facebook, accompanied by the tag “Arm McDonnell”. This same elected official has sent Sherriff numerous emails demanding that she support Corbyn.
Since becoming MP for Birmingham Yardley, Jess Phillips has gone through the same type of abuse. “Regular rape and death threats, threats to my children, hoping that I come home and find them dead. That people will report me for being a bad mum.” And now the threats to deselect her are coming in “one a minute,” she says. Like Sherriff, Phillips has now been sent emails calling her a traitor, “using the exact same language [as the man accused of killing] my friend, and I should watch my back and things like that.” She has also had people calling up her office and abusing her staff as “usually it’s not me who answers the phone.” A young woman who works for Phillips was recently abused in the street as she walked from Westminster to the tube: “One of the Momentum rallies was going on. She was screamed at for working for scum.” She adds, “It’s not great to get it from people who are meant to be on your side.”
When I ask Paula Sherriff if she agrees that it is female MPs particularly who are being targeted, she immediately says, ‘Unequivocally. Without a shadow of a doubt’
The concern that the abuse is now coming from within the Labour party itself is shared by all the women I spoke to, including one MP who did not want to be named, for fear of reprisals. “This is the thought police in action, with MPs not being allowed their own minds,” she said, claiming that it is female MPs especially who are bearing the brunt. When I ask Sherriff if she agrees that it is female MPs particularly who are being targeted, she immediately says, “Unequivocally. Without a shadow of a doubt.” Phillips also agrees. “After the local elections, and somewhat painfully now, Jo Cox and Neil Coyle wrote a joint article [for the Guardian saying they regretted nominating Jeremy Corbyn for leader]. Jo got an absolutely shitstorm of responses and Neil got hardly any.”
Sherriff holds Corbyn himself responsible for not putting a stop to the abuse. “I feel aggrieved at any leader seeing his female MPs being disproportionately attacked in this way, and then to allow that, to almost enable it. It’s all very well putting out tweets, but he has to take some responsibility. They are acting in his name. The last fortnight he hasn’t even turned up to the PLP meeting. He’s our leader, he’s accountable to us and he doesn’t even bother coming.”
Yesterday, a brick was thrown through the constituency office window of Labour leadership candidate Angela Eagle, and her office was receiving so many abusive phone calls, that her staff stopped picking up. The Labour leader condemned the attacks and said, “As someone who has also received death threats this week and previously, I am calling on all Labour Party members and supporters to act with calm and treat each other with respect”.
Thank you for joining The Pool
Corbyn’s latest intervention was welcome, and one hopes that his supporters listen to him this time. But his careful inclusion of his own death threats in his statement is telling, as it suggests he does not really understand the depth of the problem Labour is facing. There is no doubt that the entire atmosphere within the party is now toxic – but there is equally no doubt that the abuse being faced by male MPs is simply not on the systematic scale as that being endured by their female colleagues. This morning it was announced that Nottinghamshire police force is to start recording misogynistic abuse as a hate crime, because they recognise that the abuse faced by men and women is of a different nature and scale. The Labour Party should follow its lead and adopt this analysis.
A month ago, Jo Cox was shot dead in the street. Had she still been alive, as a female MP who no longer believed in Corbyn, she would no doubt be receiving threats and abuse herself. That is a sobering thought – and one that those who intend to send death threats today might like to reflect on. Otherwise, as one MP put it to me, “No one can blame people for thinking that it is the Labour Party, and not the Tories, who are the nasty party now.”