Hannah Phillips joined The Jo Cox Foundation in July. She is the Research and Policy Manager, leading the work of the Jo Cox Civility Commission. Originally from Scotland, Hannah is a policy and research professional with over eight years of experience in the public sector and academia. She has worked on local, national and international levels including at the London Borough of Lambeth Council, the UK House of Commons and the United Nations. In addition to her work at the Foundation, Hannah is a DPhil (PhD) Candidate at the University of Oxford where she examines how the phenomenon of abuse towards elected representatives has been politicised as a policy problem in the UK.
The Jo Cox Civility Commission aims to find practical recommendations to address the problem of violence, abuse and intimidation of elected representatives. Since the launch and call for evidence in February, the team has engaged with over 100 stakeholders via written submissions and meetings. We are currently in the process of drafting recommendations and aim to publish the final report in January.
I joined the team in July, bringing my experience working for elected representatives as well as my academic research on the topic. I feel honoured to use my expertise to make concrete recommendations towards a political culture that embraces Jo Cox’s philosophy that “We are far more united and have far more in common than that which divides us.”
I was working for an MP when Jo Cox was murdered and have seen the consequences of incivility and abuse in politics in subsequent years. From regular online threats to increased parliamentary security and the murder of Sir David Amess MP, the problem of abuse towards elected representatives has tragically worsened and is now more urgent than ever.
Last year, Jo’s sister, Kim Leadbeater MP, investigated threats towards MPs for Channel 4. MPs talked about the huge amount of time and energy that they, their staff and their families put into dealing with abuse. Former MPs cited the mental toll from dealing with online and in-person threats as a reason for leaving politics. Most of the people we have spoken to about the Civility Commission have reflected that abuse has become ‘normalised’ as part of the job of an elected representative.
We cannot let such abuse remain ‘normal’. Violence, abuse and intimidation towards elected representatives is cause of concern not just because of the impacts on individuals and groups, but because of its impact on democracy. Attacks towards elected representatives – whether that is from extremists, online trolls, party members, or even other elected officials – should have no place in a civil democracy.
Such violence and abuse particularly threatens diverse political representation. Existing research, including by Amnesty International, the Committee on Standards in Public Life, the Local Government Association, and academics Sofia Collignon, Rosie Campbell and Wolfgang Rüdig suggest that the problem of abuse in politics is worsening and particularly impacts those who are already underrepresented in political spaces, such as women, especially women of colour, and young MPs. Those with protected characteristics, including intersecting identities, can face particularly aggressive abuse.
At The Jo Cox Foundation, we have been learning from a wide range of individuals with lived experiences and sector experts with ideas about how we can make progress on this issue.
Abuse experienced by elected representatives is complex. It is not a problem that will only be solved by an increase in security but will require engagement and collaboration from a range of actors such as the police, political parties, parliament, local government authorities, schools, and social media companies. Importantly, it will require culture change so that abuse in politics is no longer normalised.
In our research, those working to increase the diversity of political representation have emphasised abuse as a key barrier that can prevent those with protected characteristics from putting themselves forward as political candidates. Staff of politicians have explained how abuse towards their bosses has serious impacts on their own mental health and well-being. Experts in political literacy have made recommendations on how to increase awareness about politicians’ roles as a way to prevent abuse that arises from misinformation. In the coming months, we will consolidate this cross-sector expertise and suggestions into concrete recommendations.
With a general election on the horizon, we have an opportunity to demonstrate that we do not need to accept abuse towards elected representatives as an inevitable part of politics. If implemented, the recommendations of the Jo Cox Civility Commission can make real change for the benefit of our democracy.