For lawmakers, the UK is becoming a toxic workplace

Heidi Allen is leaving politics.
Heidi Allen is leaving politics.
Image: Reuters/Henry Nicholls
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Heidi Allen, a member of parliament for the South Cambridgeshire constituency in the south of England, has degrees in astrophysics and law. She’s worked in the private sector for JP Morgan and ExxonMobil, and in the public sector for the UK’s postal service. She’s been a lawmaker since 2015. Today, as the prospect of a December general election seemed to grow closer, she quit the UK political scene, saying that Brexit and the atmosphere around it have made her job impossible, and her working environment too toxic to bear.

In a letter to constituents, Allen wrote that the “Brexit impasse”—the UK’s preference to leave the EU was signalled by a small majority of voters in 2016—”has made business as usual impossible” for the past 18 months. Allen was elected as a member of parliament for the ruling Conservative party in 2015, but resigned from the party this year over what she described as its drift to the right. She later joined the more centrist Liberal Democrats. (In the UK, parliamentarians can change parties and retain their seat until they’re voted out in a subsequent election.)

But in recent years, she said, Brexit has dominated to such an extent that the other work she actually wants to do has become unachievable. “While Parliament has been in purgatory, we have legislated for almost nothing, changed almost nothing and improved almost nothing,” she wrote. It’s not just about Brexit, however. The bitter climate in which lawmakers are operating is taking too great an emotional toll:

But more than all of that, I am exhausted by the invasion into my privacy and the nastiness and intimidation that has become commonplace. Nobody in any job should have to put up with threats, aggressive emails, being shouted at in the street, sworn at on social media, nor have to install panic alarms at home. Of couse public scrutiny is to be expected, but lines are all too often regularly crossed and the effect is utterly dehumanising.

Allen’s experience isn’t unique. This month Stella Creasy, the Labour MP for Walthamstow in northeast London, set out concerns related to the “harassment” she said she and her constituents have faced from anti-abortion extremists, sharing obscenity-filled mail she had received, and referencing ads that specifically named her and used her image alongside images of dead foetuses (Creasy, who is pregnant, has championed women’s right to abortion.)

But perhaps most worrying of all, not all incendiary language faced by UK lawmakers comes from fringe groups. In September another Labour MP, Paula Sherriff, as well as at least three other female lawmakers, challenged Boris Johnson, the prime minister, on his use of inflammatory language to describe efforts by parliament to curb his power, including referring to one piece of legislation as the “surrender act,” and using the words “betrayal,” “traitor,” and “capitulation” in connection with efforts to slow down or amend Brexit deals.

Sherriff framed her anger in the context of the murder, just before the referendum in 2016, of lawmaker Jo Cox, who was shot and stabbed by a right-wing extremist. Sherriff said that many members of parliament faced “death threats and abuse every single day.” Johnson’s response was that the best way to honor Cox’s memory was to “get Brexit done,” a phrase that happened to be his party’s official slogan at the time.

Data from the Institute for Government, a think tank, shows that spending on security for UK MPs has increased dramatically in the past five years, from £171,000 in the year in 2015/6 to well over £4 million in 2018, in the wake of Cox’s murder and a terrorist attack outside the Houses of Parliament in 2017. Crimes agains politicians have soared to “unprecedented” levels since the Brexit vote, according to London’s Metropolitan Police.

It’s no coincidence that the loudest voices raising the alarm have been women. John Bercow, the speaker of the House of Commons, has also said that female and ethnic minority members of parliament had faced disproportionately high levels of abuse, “and that is the reality.”