However, what did my party do? It invited these people in and recounted the ballot in front of them. You do not treat bullies in that way; if you keep paying the Danegeld, the Danes keep coming back.
After I was elected, I found that council officers had been given an instruction not to bother too much responding to my letters, because I would be a one-term-only candidate. That instruction could have come from only the leader or deputy leader of the council. Even worse, the officers accepted it, rather than saying it was an improper instruction, which it was. I found that my next-door neighbour was frequently invited to council events in my constituency, but I was not. Each time they apologised, and said it was a terrible mistake, but they kept doing it.
I discovered that there was a little clique in Warrington of the self-appointed great and good, who decided most things between them—usually with little reference to the people I represented—and if they were challenged they would react. I started doing mobile surgeries and found that people had been told not to contact me about their problem, because I was not any good. Through the years, I realised that there were more untrue stories leaked to the press—printed without checking, as in most local newspapers—from our friend, the senior source. A “wanted: dead or alive” poster with my picture on it was put through my door and I received a number of pretty vile anonymous letters, which were sent to me and to senior Ministers in the Government.
When I was shadow Minister with responsibility for local government finance, a particularly vile poison-pen letter was sent to leaders of local authorities. I am grateful for the support I received at the time from my colleagues in the shadow local government team. A similar thing was sent to anyone who had the temerity to come and do a fundraiser in my constituency.
By themselves, these events may seem slight; it is their cumulative effect that is the problem. They are not unique. If we are honest, there seems to be a problem with some male councillors who are used to being big fish in a little pond, and do not like having a woman MP. I know of several council leaders who deal with the male MPs in their borough, but not the woman. I know of one council leader who would not speak to a female MP in his borough, even if he were sitting in the station waiting room with her, waiting to go down to London.
In fact, I had a council leader who would not speak to me. Once, when I dragged him to a meeting, he sat in his chair tapping on the arm and refusing to engage. I know of one colleague who was shouted at for writing too many letters, which is known to the rest of us as doing our job on behalf of constituents. I know one colleague who was yelled at because she dared to suggest that the local MPs might convene a meeting on a particular local issue; apparently that was a threat to a councillor. I know of one woman who has been bullied almost beyond endurance by the men in her constituency; she has been shouted down at meetings, her campaigning has been sabotaged, and a group would not contribute funds to her general election campaign.
I know of instances where MPs’ relatives have been sacked by the council, under some spurious pretext. Each time one MP meets a certain councillor she is asked, “How’s your auntie?”, because he sacked her. I know of another MP who held a mobile surgery in a place where there had been very little work done in the past, only to have the councillor for the area ring up and say to her staff, without preamble, “Tell that effing bitch to keep out of my ward.” Was anything done to him? No; no action was taken against him at all.
I have an ex-parliamentary candidate in my area—not in my constituency—called Nick Bent. He is the outwardly respectable chief executive officer of a charity called the Tutor Trust and a trustee of the Oasis Academy. He has sent me so many abusive texts and emails that I have a thick file of them. Among his little gems—there are a lot—were calling me “poisonous and useless” and
“not fit to tie my bootlaces”,
not that I would want to. He usually says that I am going to be deselected:
“You should step down and make way. There are plenty of good candidates. After the election you will almost certainly be deselected, so it might be the only way to preserve a bit of dignity. Just some friendly advice.”
It does not seem very friendly to me, I have to say.
This man has not only abused me: he has abused my staff, my family and my constituency chair, who is well-respected in the area and has done a lot locally. Women councillors in his constituency have been on the receiving end of abusive emails and messages from him. He reduced a young woman organiser to tears during a general election. In 2016, I submitted a bullying and harassment complaint; I had been pretty patient for six years. What happened? It was mysteriously lost. I resubmitted it, but I am still waiting.
Last week, I learned that a whole cache of emails and letters, which are stolen data, have been selectively leaked to the local press. The leak is selective: they have put in the complaints that were made, but not the fact that they were dismissed. People like this constantly make complaints about women MPs; they are spurious, but they do it to try to grind them down. There are letters that I sent in reply, but not the original correspondence. I do not know who has done this, but I know why: it is payback, because I have been supporting constituents trying to defend the last green space in north Warrington from development, and because I have said that the local council was wrong to buy a business park through an offshore trust that meant it avoided paying tax. All these things are clear. They are meant to silence women MPs and to ensure that our voices are not heard in the public sphere at all. They are meant to prevent us from speaking, not for ourselves but for our constituents.
Why do we carry on doing it? In my view, we do it because my constituents deserve it—they deserve my standing up for them. They have returned me at six general elections, so I think I must be doing something right. We should never, ever accept this behaviour as normal, in the same way that we should never accept threats of violence as normal. It is part of a continuum aimed at women MPs. It is time it stopped and it is time political parties made sure it is stopped.