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Labour And Tory MPs Say Social Media Abuse Is Stopping Women From Standing For Parliament

4 min read

Attacks on social media are one of the main challenges facing women who are looking to stand for Parliament, Labour and Conservative MPs have warned.

Labour MP Julie Elliott outlined the difficulties of preparing people for the impact the public role will have on them, their family and staff, while Maria Miller, the Conservative former chair of the Women and Equalities Committee, said that it is “so important” that “we tackle any barriers that women face in becoming members of Parliament”. 

Elliot, who has been the MP for Sunderland Central since 2010, said that the issues present themselves while being selected, but then also one that continues when they get to Westminster. Elliott, who was selected in 2008, two years before she arrived in Parliament, thinks that the growth in social media has made the early stages of the process far more public. 

Previously, selections and the early days of candidacy had not been as centred in the public eye, but that changed with the focus on an online presence as a campaign tool. 

“Now [...] when a candidate launches or puts their application in it’s all over social media, you’ve put your videos out there, so in that sense it’s much more public. 

“In some ways that’s harder because you’re putting yourself out there and you’re putting yourself on the line when you seek selection. 

“You were doing that almost in a private forum before, whereas now, it’s completely out there.” 

Elliot said that although it happens to MPs of all genders and all parties, she feels women are disproportionately affected.

“That‘s very challenging to deal with, especially if you’ve never been a public figure,” she added. 

Miller, who was first elected as an MP almost two decades ago, agreed: “I think with the advent of social media being a prevalent way of communicating [...] this can really negatively impact particularly women candidates,” she said.

“It's not necessarily politicians themselves, but their followers who are using language which is putting off a diverse cross section of people from standing for election [...].

She went on: “These are all things which I don't think were as prevalent in 2005. However, having said that, having more women in parliament now, the word 2005 and certainly more women in my party than were in 2005 helps make sure those debates are seen as central and not peripheral issues.”

The MPs were speaking to PoliticsHome during the Westminster Foundation for Democracy’s conference on selection processes for women in political parties. They both sit on the board of the organisation, which is sponsored by the Foreign Commonwealth and Development Office. 

The event was focussed on how parties can better support women candidates who wish to enter public life. 

Elliott said that it is hard to prepare somebody for the onslaught they may face on social media when they step forward for election. “You can explain until you’re blue in the face, but until you’ve encountered it and the really personal aggression, I don’t know how you prepare people to cope with that.” 

She said that it’s not just the personal impact, but the effect it can have on friends and family, as well as staff in an MP's constituency or in Westminster. 

“That is impossible to prepare somebody for. You can talk about it, you can explain, you can share experiences, but how you deal with it, some colleagues simply can’t deal with it, and candidates really struggle,” she said. 

Shannon O’Connell, the WFD’s director of policy and programmes told PoliticsHome that similar problems have been identified across the world, as part of the WFD’s work with democratic organisations across the country. 

“The attacks are much more targeted to women,” she explained. 

“It tends to be much more personalised; personal threats to their safety and safety of their families.

“It also tends to be highly sexualised, and it does tend to target women who would be at some sort of disadvantage, whether it's because of their ethnicity, whether it's because they have a disability, whether it's because they're from an area that's disadvantaged, so we do see that quite globally.”

Constituency parties across the country are in the process of selecting their candidates ahead of the general election, which must be held before the end of January 2025. 

According to the Parliament website, now there are 226 female MPs, of whom 104 are Labour, 88 Conservative, and 15 SNP, with the remainder made up from the smaller parties across the House. 

“When I talk to my colleagues who are members of other parties, I don't think there's a party here that isn't trying to encourage more women to stand that doesn't have a programme in place to help do that,” Miller said. 

“But Parliament itself also needs to take responsibility, and make sure that we're a place that women really want to come and work.”

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