A foundation set up in the name of murdered MP Jo Cox has attacked the “abhorrent” abuse aimed at female MPs, after four women cited bullying as their reason for standing down from Parliament.
In the past week, Tory MPs Caroline Spelman and Nicky Morgan, former Labour MP Louise Ellman and Liberal Democrat MP Heidi Allen have all cited abuse as contributing to their decision not to run in the forthcoming general election.
It comes three years after Mrs Cox, the MP for Batley and Spen, was murdered in the street by a far-right activist, while earlier this year a white supremacist was jailed for a plot to kill fellow Labour MP Rosie Cooper.
Catherine Anderson, chief executive of the Jo Cox Foundation, told the PA news agency: “One of Jo’s great passions was encouraging more women to come forward as candidates, so it is very sad to see talented women standing down at this time.”
She added that “while abuse and intimidation directed at those in public life is always abhorrent”, evidence collected by the foundation showed “women are disproportionately more likely to be targets”.
“We all have a responsibility to call out threats and unacceptable behaviour, whether online or offline,” she said.
In a statement announcing her decision, Ms Allen said she was “exhausted” by the invasion into her privacy and the “nastiness and intimidation that has become commonplace” in recent years.
She referenced one recent example of an email about her “killing a baby” because she spoke about having an abortion.
Mrs Ellman, meanwhile, cited anti-Semitic discourse within Labour as a reason for leaving the party.
On Wednesday night, Culture Secretary Mrs Morgan said the impact on her family and the abuse she had received were a contributing factor to her decision to step down.
Following his Cabinet colleague’s announcement, Health Secretary Matt Hancock tweeted: “Heartbreaking to see the number of colleagues stepping down because of the daily stream of online abuse.
“No one, in any job, should be abused in this way. Surely we as a society can be better than this.”
There are currently 649 MPs, of whom 211 are women. As of Thursday morning, a total of 17 female MPs and 41 male MPs have stood down ahead of the general election on December 12.
An Amnesty International report in December 2018 found that 7.1% of tweets to female journalists and politicians in a study of 228,000 tweets contained abusive or problematic language.
Chiara Capraro, Amnesty’s women’s rights programme manager, said: “Our research has shown the shocking levels of abuse on Twitter that is hurled against women in politics – including death and rape threats – and the chilling effect this can have on their lives.
“We shouldn’t be seeing women politicians feel the need to self-censor, leave social media or even quit politics altogether because of the dangerous abuse they receive.
“The run-up to an election can be a particularly difficult time, with levels of abuse often skyrocketing … social media companies must do far more to combat this extremely worrying trend, so that women can feel safe to participate in public debate and politics.”