It’s 4:30 p.m. in northern England and already dark outside. Labour candidate Tracy Brabin is sitting with a group of volunteers, making calls to pitch her re-election in the riding of Batley and Spen on Dec. 12.
Normally, she would be out door-knocking, but because of growing security concerns, she is staying inside at night.
“To be honest, we are just not taking any risks,” said Brabin, as she showed off a new personal security alarm that keeps her in contact with police.
Devices like it have been given to candidates in the current U.K. election campaign whose safety has been threatened, either online or in person.
The 58-year-old former Coronation Street actress blames the Brexit stalemate for the increased abuse.
“People are now emailing that ‘I am going to kill you, I am outside your house,'” she said.
Each email tries to top the last in an attempt to bully politicians.
“I am having it to my face door-knocking, calling me a traitor. We had a funny one today where he ran after me with the leaflet and said, ‘I don’t want this.I hate you. I hate your lot. Even my dog hates you.'”
Police in the U.K. say threats to politicians are at unprecedented levels and have forced them to issue safety guidelines for all candidates. The recommendations include not going out alone, always carrying a charged cellphone, and monitoring and reporting comments on social media.
‘Cox was first; you are next’
Brabin is running in the riding where Labour MP Jo Cox served until she was murdered in 2016 by a far-right extremist just days before the Brexit referendum.
“After Jo was murdered, there was a strong sense that politics would get better,” said Catherine Anderson, chief executive of the Jo Cox Foundation.
The organization was set up in Cox’s honour to try to bring more civility to the political conversation and prevent violence.
However, things are getting worse, she says.
“A Conservative candidate was punched earlier this year in the local elections when she was delivering a leaflet. A Labour councillor in Oxford just this week had a swastika painted on her home. And there are councillors whose cars are being burned.”
Former Tory MP Anna Soubry recently tweeted out a letter sent to her office calling her treacherous and making the chilling threat: “Cox was first; you are next.”
The man who sent it was charged with using threatening language, convicted and given a suspended one-year prison sentence.
Threats keeping some out of politics
The abuse has become so bad that some MPs decided not to run in this election, specifically sighting threats as the reason why.
Former Tory cabinet minister Nicky Morgan announced she would stand down late last month. In her resignation letter, she wrote political life was having an impact on her family and spoke of “the abuse for doing the job of a modern MP.”
“I think that really is something that should concern absolutely everybody regardless of political affiliation,” said Alice Lilly, a researcher with the Institute for Government in London.
She says many of the people walking away from politics are women and early on in their political careers.
Persist. We must get more involved in politics — and we will not allow the bullies to hound us out.– Tracy Brabin
“Potentially very capable people, very engaged people, might simply choose not to stand for public office because they are so concerned about what they might have to put up with.”
Skepticism about democracy exacerbating the problem
Lilly says the issue likely won’t fade away anytime soon, because people have lost faith in democracy. The U.K. voted to leave the EU more than three years ago, yet Parliament has been unable to make it happen.
“I think that has raised all sorts of much bigger questions about the value of representative democracy and actually what is it MPs do and how should they be approaching their role.”
Lilly says social media is only amplifying the division.
Back in her Yorkshire riding, Brabin says parliamentarians need to take some responsibility, too. She says attacks against politicians, who are often supporters of the Remain side in the Brexit debate, are peppered with the language used by their opposition.
“I know some of my colleagues, myself and actually the Conservative Party members themselves have asked the prime minister to tone down his language,” said Brabin, who has been critical of British Prime Minister Boris Johnson.
The prime minister was called out in the House of Commons in late October by MP Paula Sherrif, who said his use of the words “surrender,” “betrayal” and “traitor” are fuelling the abuse.
Initially, Johnson responded by calling the allegations humbug, but he changed his tune in an interview days later, saying there should be zero tolerance for that kind of behaviour.
Despite the threats, Brabin says she won’t back down, and she is urging others to do the same saying. “Persist. We must get more involved in politics — and we will not allow the bullies to hound us out.”