Standing up for those standing down

In which former Medway councillor Anne-Claire Howard ponders why female MPs are stepping down in this General Election..

The first question is, are many women MPs standing down? More than men? If that’s the case, are they long standing MPs? And what reasons are they invoking? And are they of all parties, ethnic origin, or ages? It’s a little easy to make all-encompassing statements like this, so I did a little research. 

First of all, of the 58 politicians who are stepping down, 18 are women. “Well, that’s not so bad”, I hear you say. No, that’s not so bad. It’s basically the same proportion as there are female MPs in the house. This in itself is an issue, but not the topic of this piece. So proportionally as many women are standing down as men. But many of these women are relatively young and relatively recently elected compared to their male peers. That is more of a concern.

The question is then really is: why as so many female MPs standing down? And what do the majority of these MPs have in common. And no, it’s not the abject fear of losing their seat. Every single one of them mentions increasing threats and abuse as one of the reasons they are doing so.  What’s surprising is the reaction you get from too many people saying this is part and parcel of being in politics. I was actually told by a male colleague of a certain age that these women were “pansies” and if they couldn’t take criticism they shouldn’t be in politics. Well, sorry for being a liberal snowflake, but I don’t believe that choosing to be a politician entitles others to threaten you from behind the safety of their keyboard, bully you, plot your demise, hurl abuse at you and your family, make you feel unsafe or simply be rude to you. Have we learned nothing from the tragedy of Jo Cox’s murder, the conviction of the neo-Nazi who wanted to murder Rosie Cooper and the most recent conviction of the man sending death threats to Anna Soubry? When this did become normal? 

Women (and men), from every political party in the house, feel that to remain a politician places them and their loved ones under threat. And this has to be called out. It’s not “humbug”, it’s not “being too sensitive”. It’s a fact. And I dare any woman who has ever been active in politics out there to tell me they have never felt scared because they were a politician and therefore in the public eye. Hell, show me any woman who has never been verbally or physically abused in some shape or form!

The real issue here is not so much that female MPs are stepping down but that being a woman in politics places you in harm’s way. And this is a much bigger concern that simply “women MPs standing down”. Our politics have turned nasty. Verbal and physical abuse have become common place and has been legitimised by the words and actions of politicians throughout the country and through a vicious gutter press.

I will always remember the first time I was genuinely afraid as a local councillor. I was holding my monthly surgery at the Twydall Library when a man walked into the room to talk to me. He was agitated. I didn’t worry too much: the library staff were close by, there was CCTV in the room, and I am an experienced boxer. As our conversation progressed, he became more and more agitated and verbally abusive. After a while I managed to get him to leave. But as he left, he said he had my home address and that people like me shouldn’t exist. I reported the threat and asked the council to remove my address from the public website.

Whilst this is not a very serious incident, since then I have been verbally threatened both as a councillor and as a foreigner. Insulted in the playground in front of my children for daring to speak French, insulted by fellow councillors for “betraying” the Conservative Party when I left.. and that’s without even looking at some of the stuff on my Twitter feed.

I have spoken to many women who have chosen to stop their involvement in politics. And every single one of them said that they simply couldn’t take it anymore. They were tired of the abusive comments, of men telling them what they should say and how they should behave, of older colleagues patronising them, or worse patting them on the “rump”. It’s the blend of fear, abuse, patronising attitudes which pushes women out. 

So, no, I don’t think we should be concerned that female MPs are stepping down. We should be very concerned that the men in power dismiss their fears as “humbug”.

Anne-Claire Howard has been a Medway resident since 2013, and is a proud European, CEO, mother of 2 who is married to former army officer and fire fighter. She was elected as a Conservative councillor for Twydall in 2015, before going independent in 2018, and standing down this year.

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