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"Vast Majority" Of The Worst Abuse MPs Face Is Not Made Public

Mike Freer winning his Finchley and Golders Green seat in 2019 (Alamy)

5 min read

MPs have warned that the amount of abuse they face that is made public is only the tip of the iceberg, with many choosing not to speak out on the issue for fear of further compromising their security.

Following Mike Freer's decision to step down as a Conservative MP at the next election, Lord John Mann, the government's independent adviser on antisemitism, told PoliticsHome that many more political figures are facing similar and worse behind the scenes.

Freer, whose Finchley and Golders Green seat is home to one of the largest Jewish communities in the UK, cited having received death threats as a key reason for stepping down. "Since my election as MP in 2010 I have sadly had several serious threats to my personal safety," Freer said in his resignation letter to the Prime Minister. "The attacks by Muslims Against Crusades, Ali Harbi Ali and the recent arson attack (where the motives remain unclear) have weighed heavily on me and my husband, Angelo."

A man has since been arrested over a "threatening" call to Freer on the day he spoke publicly about the abuse. In December, his office was firebombed around the time that MPs in Westminster had expressed concerns about their offices being targeted for taking positions on the war between Israel and Hamas. A man and woman have been remanded in custody following a separate investigation relating to this incident

Threats against MPs have become a particularly urgent issue in recent years following the murder of Labour MP Jo Cox in 2016 by a far-right extremist, and the murder of Conservative MP David Amess in 2021 by an Islamic extremist. In November, House of Commons speaker Sir Lindsay Hoyle told MPs they would have a greater freedom to claim for taxis in their expenses due to a “significant increase in protest activity, and spike in abusive and threatening behaviour towards Members”.

One Jewish MP told PoliticsHome: "At the moment things are a bit edgy, but I don't like to highlight it too much because then perversely you end up with more grief not less."

Lord Mann, a Former Labour MP, told PoliticsHome Freer's departure once again demonstrated the scale of the challenges facing MPs in public life. 

"There's been concerted efforts to take out a number of Jewish professionals in their workplace because they've taken a view on things – not an extreme view on things, or a dangerous view on things – and because of that have received huge amounts of pressure to try and force them out," he explained. 

"MPs are the front end of that, and obviously Mike Freer is not Jewish but he's been pretty outspoken on antisemitism and is actually one of the more mild MPs in terms of his views. His views are fairly mainstream in the Conservative Party, they're not extreme.

"In terms of his demeanour and approach, he's one of the easiest people to work with, I worked with him on a cross party basis. The fact that he feels vulnerable and for his family feels vulnerable demonstrates a serious problem for MPs and politics."

Mann said that the abuse Freer received is widespread, and often MPs – particularly Jewish MPs – do not speak out about the abuse they receive for fear of making it worse. 

"It makes sense for most people to keep their heads down, and I would say that's generally rational," said Mann.

"I think what's significant is that the vast majority, some of the worst stuff that people are having to deal with, isn't public at all – because they don't want it to be public.

"And that can impact on either your workplace or the people you're working with. If you're an MP, that's your employees."

Mann believed "more considered support" for new politicians was among a variety of options that could be explored to alleviate the issue. 

"Advice on dealing with abuse on the internet for new MPs, new councillors and other people in the public eye. I think there can be much clearer guidance on what to do," he added. 

Chief executive of the antisemitism Trust, Danny Stone, told PoliticsHome more action is needed to protect people stepping into public life from the sort of abuse that led to Freer standing down. 

"This isn't a problem that's going away, you can't just ignore this problem," Stone said. 

"Whether that is a misinformation panel that is supposed to be set up, whether it is focusing parliamentary parties – in respect to the forthcoming elections and what their manifestos might include – or whether it's just having some MPs thinking about the language that they're using more carefully.

"Whether it's any of those things, I hope that those actions will follow from some of these events, because they're all necessary."

Mike Katz, chair of the Jewish Labour Movement, said despite Freer being from the Labour's main competitor in Finchley and Golders Green the fact that he had been forced to step down over safety concerns was "awful".  

"If taking it more seriously and having a more serious conversation allows public debate about what's reasonable to expect of some public representatives, in this particular case the idea that you're trying to play out conflicts in the Middle East on the streets of Britain, if there's a way that enables a wider conversation about about that sort of thing, then at least some good would have come of this," he said. 

"But it's still very, very sad when a veteran MP says: 'I'm hanging up my boots because this has put me in danger, put my family in danger'. That's awful."

The Prime Minister’s official spokesperson said Rishi Sunak was "extremely saddened" by Freer's decision to step down due to "such vitriolic hatred" and that while the government believed current measures to protect MPs are "robust", they are kept under review. 

“No elected representative deserves to be abused or intimidated and the attacks and abuse that Mike Freer references are clearly deeply distressing," they said.

"They are not just an attack on him, but an attack on British democracy.”

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