Women, Northern Ireland and the 2019 General Election

Clare Rice is Research Assistant on the ‘Performing Identities: Post-Brexit Northern Ireland and the reshaping of 21st Century Governance’ project at Newcastle University, a PhD Candidate and TA at QUB, and an occasional commentator. Twitter: @Clare_Rice_

We are less than a week into the 2019 Westminster election campaign and already we have seen a concerning pattern begin to emerge. It isn’t unusual for sizeable numbers of MPs to decide to step down from elected politics (see this useful overview), but given the Brexit-related connotations of taking such a decision on this occasion, and that several high profile individuals have done it, there is a lot of interest in who is doing what and why ahead of this election.

However, it is the number of high-profile women that have taken the decision to not seek re-election and their reasons for doing so which are of particular note in this. At present, 20 women are standing down, with the majority of these having said that threats and abuse they have received while in office have formed a large part of their reason for reaching this decision.

When Labour MP, Paula Sherriff, spoke in the House of Commons in September about the abuse she and other female MPs had received, and what she believed to be a link between this and ‘inflammatory language’ being used by the Prime Minister in relation to Brexit, Boris Johnson was widely condemned for his response, in which he stated:

‘I’ve never heard such humbug in all my life.’

With Liberal Democrat leader, Jo Swinson, having shared that threats against her child had to be reported to the police, Labour MP Jess Phillips having spoken about rape threats, and a swathe of other female MPs sharing details of some of the vicious abuse they have received on social media and elsewhere during their time in office, perhaps the most disturbing aspect of this was that the Prime Minister had to be cajoled into reflecting on his remarks.

Even if the benefit of the doubt is given that it was indeed a ‘misunderstanding’ on Johnson’s part, that the Prime Minister did not see the seriousness of such a mistake as being enough in itself to issue a clarification on his own initiative reinforces that the extent of the danger female MPs find themselves in is not being taken as seriously as it should in Westminster.

This highlights a clear indifference within the institutions as to the circumstances female elected representatives in particular have had to endure in doing their jobs, particularly in recent years. An attitude that politics by its very nature attracts negative attention to politicians does not come close to capturing the reality of what some MPs have been faced with. But, it is one which can be comfortably expressed from a position of privilege in a political context where being a white male has been the accepted norm. When that is all you know, it is easier to look on the situation through this prism than it is to step back and look at the true extent of the problem through the eyes of another.

The Prime Minister’s handling of this situation, as demonstrated in the debate mentioned, sadly indicates that this is his mentality and that this is the approach he is taking to understanding what some other MPs are having to contend with on a daily basis. The consequence of this is that female MPs are paid nothing more than lip-service in response to their calls for greater protections and conscious action in order to prevent an already volatile political climate becoming even more toxic and dangerous.

It is perhaps unsurprising, therefore, that so many women populate the list of MPs who have opted against standing in the forthcoming election.

The current figure of 20 women not seeking re-election equates to just over a third of the total number of MPs that have taken this decision so far. Given that the House of Commons comprised of 206 (32%) women, and that a number of those stepping down would have been likely to be re-elected if they had stood (for example, Conservative MP Nicky Morgan, Liberal Democrat MP Heidi Allen), this is a significant number of women to be losing from public life at this level. The figure of 32% shows that there was still an issue of under-representation after the 2017 election, and further, this briefing from the House of Commons Library indicates that for women from ethnic minority backgrounds, the obstacles to achieving elected positions are even greater. To have a third of the women that were elected in 2017 not return to the House of Commons, therefore, is noteworthy.

It is only fair to recognise that female MPs have not been alone in being subjected to online abuse and threats. For example, Conservative MP Scott Mann received a threat that his office would be nail-bombed. This is an issue not confined to women, but for female MPs and females whose identity intersects with other minority categories, the intensity, frequency and nature of the abuse and threats gives their content a different resonance. The murder of Labour MP, Jo Cox, also entails a sense that threats and abuse cannot be assumed to be simply words in the current climate, making their receipt all the more serious.

In Northern Ireland, 5 of the 18 MPs were female – Emma Little-Pengelly (DUP); Michelle Gildernew (SF); Elisha McCallion (SF); Órfhlaith Begley (SF – following a by-election in 2018); and Lady Sylvia Hermon (Indep). This equated to just under 28%, the highest percentage of females from Northern Ireland elected at this level to date. In previous General Elections, the figures were 2 in 2015 (11%), 4 in 2010 (22%) and 3 in 2005 (17%).
While Northern Ireland’s MPs have not received widespread attention for online abuse and threats in the way that others have, this does not mean to say that they have not also been subjected to it. For example, Emma Little-Pengelly has spoken about abuse she has received on Twitter and about women in politics more generally often being faced with abuse directed at personal attributes of an individual, such as appearance.

Politics is a dirty game, but when criticism and ridicule move beyond political matters and become personal, a dangerous line is crossed.

At the time of writing, the final list of candidates running in the 2019 General Election has yet to be confirmed. Further, the uncertainty surrounding the likelihood of success in a number of key constituencies means that it is impossible to predict with any degree of certainty who and which parties will top the polls across the UK. In Northern Ireland, the nature of politics when it comes to elections means that, by and large, votes on polling day are less about the candidates standing, and more about what side of the divide a party falls on. Divisions over Brexit and unofficial pacts are adding a further level of uncertainty going into this election.

But, what we do know is that the female exodus from Westminster politics has now extended into Northern Ireland in light of Lady Sylvia Hermon’s decision to stand down. Three of the four remaining females seeking re-election are far from safe in their seats, taking Sinn Fein’s West Tyrone seat as unlikely to be lost. However, with Claire Hanna (SDLP) and Naomi Long (Alliance) as strong contenders for two seats, the overall difference in terms of female representatives returned might not be altered too much, if at all.

Parliament being composed of fewer females overall would bear consequences for the UK as a whole (see Chapter 2 of this Parliamentary report for further insight). Parliament needs diversity and a plurality of perspectives and experiences informing the legislative process, but this has the potential to be diminished if women feel deterred from entering politics at this level after seeing so many women leave on the basis of sustained and increasingly aggressive abuse being levied at them.

On a local level, we are lucky in Northern Ireland to have an increasing, rather than diminishing, number of women active in public life at different levels. But we can’t take it for granted that this will or can be sustained through the turbulent political times that lie ahead if abuse against female MPs becomes normalised as being part of the job.

We can’t afford to lose the positive gains that have been made to date with the number of women pursuing public office, but the diversity we all need to see in Westminster will be much harder to achieve if abuse of elected representatives is not treated seriously, especially by those who are in positions of influence with regard to it.

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