Threats and Abuse Change How Female Candidates Campaign in U.K. Election

Threats and Abuse Change How Female Candidates Campaign in U.K. Election


LEEDS, EnglandThe campaign office is deliberately inconspicuous — tucked above a salon through an unmarked doorway in a 1970s-era shopping center. There are no campaign posters in the windows. Two cameras are trained on the entrance. The door frame was recently reinforced.

They are necessary precautions, said Rachel Reeves, the Labour candidate who has represented this area of Leeds in Parliament since 2010 and uses the space as both her constituency office and now as her campaign headquarters.

The death threats, abuse on social media and graffiti calling for “traitor” lawmakers to be hanged have changed her approach ahead of Britain’s upcoming general election. This is the new reality, she and other lawmakers say, in a campaign environment that has become remarkably nasty, particularly for women, who face a torrent of abuse and threats often laced with misogyny. And it is happening across the political spectrum.

“I do think it’s a very different atmosphere and environment now compared to the first two times I stood,” Ms. Reeves said. “People are a lot angrier and there’s a lot more polarization, particularly around the Brexit issue.”

In the dwindling days before Britain heads to the polls, candidates, particularly women, are finding themselves campaigning in a climate where they say abuse, threats and a culture of intimidation have become the norm. With the Labour and Conservative parties hurling blame and allegations of racism and wrongdoing at each other, and anger and exhaustion over the still unresolved issue of Brexit, the country is divided like never before.

Where once candidates might have tried to be as visible as possible, many are now proceeding with caution, heeding warnings from the police. The abuse is not directed entirely at women. Men have come in for their share as well.

But a study conducted during the most recent election showed that female lawmakers received disproportionately more abuse on social media, with women of color receiving an even larger share.

She believes Brexit divisions and language used by leaders in Parliament have fueled the anger.

Six weeks ago, her staff arrived at their office on Morley’s main street to find graffiti scrawled in the entryway: “Andrea just kill yourself pls.”

The decision to hold an election in December, when daylight is in short supply across Britain, has also forced many candidates to rethink their strategies, with some, including Ms. Jenkyns, swearing off knocking on doors in the dark because of safety concerns.

Before previous elections, much of Ms. Reeves’s canvassing would take place after the workday ended. Now, it’s dark by 4:30 p.m.

On Tuesday, she set out at 4 p.m., knocking on doors with a small team of volunteers who put leaflets through mail slots in the Fairfield Estate, a mixture of public housing projects and privately owned homes spread out over a steep hillside.

The streetlights came on as she made her way along the densely packed terraced houses, her red Labour candidate badge visible in the darkness. Few answered the door.

But those who happened to be home were mostly positive, mixed with a few curt responses from those not supporting Labour.

“I think we are certainly a little more vigilant,” Ms. Reeves said, describing a few confrontations. “We would never have someone go door-knocking by themselves.”

Ms. Cox’s younger sister, Kim Leadbetter, believes that the conversation around Brexit has grown increasingly vitriolic in the years since her sister’s death. She worries it could prove damaging to the democratic process and discourage young people, particularly women, from politics.

“When Jo was murdered, there was a short period of time when politicians said all the right things about how politics needed to take a step back,” she said.

But it didn’t last. Instead, she said, anger, frustration, and violent language seem to dominate the conversation. Ms. Leadbetter, an ambassador for the Jo Cox Foundation, a nonpartisan, community-building charity that was created after her sister’s death, said that while her sister was an advocate of robust debate, “we have to be able to disagree agreeably.”

While there is undoubtedly an issue with threats of violence on social media — due in part to the anonymity the platforms can provide — Ms. Leadbetter warned against dismissing them as just an online problem.

“It only takes one individual who cannot see the difference between violent, aggressive and abusive language and an act of violence that can change people’s lives forever,” she said.



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