Ever since I’ve been elected, I’ve struggled with the behaviour in the chamber. Within weeks of taking my place I was shouted down by the government benches. Colleagues told me I’d get used to it. And perhaps like a lobster in water, I have slowly, over time. But last night, the temperature hit boiling point. And it reminded me again that the way the House of Commons behaves is not OK.
Before becoming an MP, I was teacher. I always made clear to my students that the kind of behaviour exhibited by the prime minister and some MPs in the chamber yesterday was not okay. If it’s beneath schoolchildren, it’s certainly well beneath Boris Johnson.
The atmosphere in the Commons chamber last night was shameful. It made no one proud. But I don’t blame everyone equally. Like any organisation, the tone is being set from the top.
The current occupants of No 10 want to sell us a narrative of “us and them”, “the people vs parliament”, “the surrender bill”. This tone is filtering down – from parliament into the media and into society. We heard yesterday that female MPs were receiving death threats repeating the prime minister’s words. That’s not “humbug”, it’s a hate crime. Words have consequences.
We can, and we must, do better than this.
Ideally, such language and tone should never be used, especially by those who consider themselves to be public servants. It is one thing when you make a mistake and then apologise – I would like to thank Emily Thornberry for doing just that, after referring to the Lib Dems as the Taliban but then apologising very graciously in the House – but it is quite another to double down on your remarks, to inflame.
Politicians need to realise that words have consequences. Hate crime is on the rise. No matter your ideology, your party, or how you voted in the 2016 referendum, nobody deserves what so many MPs receive on a regular, sometimes daily, basis.
I consider myself lucky that I have not received the level of abuse that many of my colleagues have, but I am certainly not immune. When I was called a traitor to my face exiting my place of work recently, I was just scared. I wasn’t an MP in that moment. I was just vulnerable. I shouldn’t have to feel this way to do my job. No one should. And I know that many others out there are facing similar things as the febrile atmosphere in parliament seems to give permission to those who seek to bully and intimidate.
Of course, even this narrative risks feeding the “us vs them” agenda. That’s why all of us must take responsibility for this. All of us. Me included. No ifs, no buts.
Because it doesn’t matter if it’s via email, over the phone or on the street – it all matters, it all has an effect on the situation.
I wish that there was an easy solution to this; that the PM could just apologise and the toxic atmosphere would dissipate. We all know it will be much harder than that, and that we all need to put in effort to see lasting, positive change.
That’s why we need a code of conduct on political discourse that can be enforced, including during elections. The speaker called for something similar this morning.
In a way I wish we didn’t need to do that, but now it seems unavoidable. We recently introduced a behaviour code in parliament for members, staff and others, and that is helping to change the culture in Westminster for the better. Let’s do something similar for our political culture more widely – something positive and hopeful for us all to sign up to.
It will take time, of course it will, but the events of the last week show us that there’s no time to lose.
Layla Moran is a Liberal Democrat MP for Oxford West and Abingdon
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