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Politicians Say They Shouldn't Need “Rhino Skin” To Do The Job As Young MPs Quit

A number of MPs have announced they are standing down from the Commons at the next election (Alamy)

5 min read

Frustrated politicians worry that a new generation is being put off the job by "constant attacks on social media” after a number of young MPs announced that they would stand down at the next election.

Labour shadow Levelling Up minister Sarah Owen said she finds it “shocking” that younger Tories including William Wragg, Dehenna Davison and Chloe Smith want to leave the Commons at the next election rather than embark on long parliamentary careers. 

The three are among a number of MPs, across the political divide, who plan to step aside and allow somebody else to contest their seats. While none of them specifically cited personal attacks as a reason for their decision, online abuse and concern for the safety of MPs has been a growing issue in recent years. 

Speaking to PoliticsHome podcast The Rundown on Thursday, Owen noted that the challenges of getting elected in the first place means that any MP would need a certain level of dedication, which raises concerns when someone would decide against a career in Parliament once reaching the position. 

“I think we do have to look at ourselves and ask some questions as to why are some of the younger politicians choosing to step away from something that they've wanted to do so much," she said. 

Labour MP Sarah Owen
Labour MP Sarah Owen told PoliticsHome that questions need to be asked when young MPs stand down

Conservative MP Kevin Foster told PoliticsHome that while some MPs in his party stepping down is part of the usual churn in the time leading to an election, he agreed the abuse some receive for doing the job was likely putting them off continuing.

Foster cited the former Labour MP Ruth Smeeth, now Baroness Smeeth, who got “absolute torrents of abuse” before she lost her seat in 2019.

“You just sit there thinking that we can't have a situation where rhino skin and the ability to put up with constant attacks on social media is the main attribute you need in politics,” he said.

Owen noted that for female MPs, for whom there is a "different standard", the abuse can be even worse. She argued that while Foster and his Tory colleague Nus Ghani may have voted exactly the same way on issues in Parliament, "Nus would have had it a lot worse”.

“I don't want to see people put off at all because I always say to primary school kids: 'come into Parliament, because this is your place as much as it is everybody else’s'," she continued. 

“It really, really pains me when I see examples where I can't say to a kid in Luton, 'this is somewhere for you, this is somewhere that you will be able to thrive and have equal opportunities and be heard in the same way as somebody else sat next to you'.”

Conservative MP for Torbay Kevin Foster
Conservative MP for Torbay Kevin Foster

Owen also said that conduct within Parliament needs to improve "massively" after Conservative MP Paul Howell told her and Labour colleagues to "shut up" following a dispute in the Commons

“I think I went in eyes wide-open, and as much as Kevin says that you shouldn't have rhino skin, I think knowing that this is what is going to face you when you come in and be part of that change,” she explained. 

“I want to be part of that change, and I will always lean into it, but it shouldn't be happening.

“There is absolutely no reason why a woman who is representing and standing up for her constituents should be told to sit down and shut up.”

Owen added that while she recognises such misconduct is an issue in many workplaces, she felt MPs should be setting an example from their position in public life.

"I think there should be some leadership from us because we set the tone, we set the example that the rest of society takes its lead from,” she said.

But Robert Colvile, director of the Centre for Policy Studies think tank and a co-author of the Conservative Party’s 2019 election manifesto, said it would be a mistake to think of recent announcements as a product of “Tory dysfunction”, but rather see them as “a much bigger thing" about the type of people that want to come into politics.

He told PoliticsHome he was “always so impressed” when he meets good people who have got themselves elected to Parliament “because the truth is there are just a lot of people that look at the pressure you are under, especially women, especially the vicious abuse you get just by being female on the internet”, and choose not to bother.

“I wouldn't ever want to be an MP, I did work experience when I was 18 and it was just enough to know that I didn’t want to do it,” Colvile added.

“But it's become worse, it’s become tougher, you see fewer and fewer people wanting to do it.”

  • For the full discussion listen to this week's episode of The Rundown, out Friday.


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