In the same week that Dawn Butler was expelled from the House of Commons, MP Dr Rosena Allin-Khan was ‘tone-policed’ by a white MP – and not for the first time. Sian Norris analyses a worrying trend

The expulsion of Labour MP Dawn Butler from the House of Commons for calling the Prime Minister a “liar” raised questions about the rules governing language in Parliament. 

Under parliamentary rules, it is not acceptable to call another MP a liar, as well as a host of other, sometimes archaic, words such as “guttersnipe”. 

But the Brent Central representative’s expulsion comes at a time when the use of tone, and in particular the tone and language used by black and ethnic minority women MPs, has been in the spotlight. 

In the same week that Butler was suspended from Westminster’s green benches, Conservative Health Minister Helen Whately criticised the “tone” used by Labour’s Dr Rosena Allin-Khan during a debate on NHS pay. 

In response to her contribution, Whately said that she was “shocked by some of the language she uses” adding: “It is clearly very important the things that we say in this chamber, and they have ripples beyond this chamber, and so the tone of what we say, I for one consider is extremely important.”

Whately clearly disagrees with her party’s leader, who in 2019 seemed to think that what was said on the green benches had no consequences in the outside world. Labour’s Paula Sherriff argued during a heated debate that the language of “surrender act”, “betrayal” and “traitor” that Boris Johnson and others used in the Commons relating to Brexit was “dangerous” and leading to the abuse of MPs. The Prime Minister called her claims “humbug”.

During the debate with Whately, A&E doctor Allin-Khan repeatedly asked “is this fair” and pointed out the exhaustion of NHS staff, calling the pay rise being offered to them by the Government an “insult of the highest order”. She asked the Government to show the NHS “more than claps” and deliver “concrete plans”, before inviting Whately to “shadow her” on a shift on the NHS frontline.

It is not clear what it was about Allin-Khan’s tone that was unacceptable. While passionate and robust, she was more measured and calm than the typical ya-boo, desk-banging of many, many men in Parliament. 


Tone-Policing

There is no data on whether women MPs of colour are more likely to see their tone judged more harshly than their white or male peers.

But this is the second time that Dr Rosena Allin-Khan’s “tone” has been raised in the House of Commons. Last May, the then Health and Social Care Secretary Matt Hancock advised her “to take a leaf out of the Shadow Secretary of State’s [Jonathan Ashworth – a white male MP] book in terms of tone”.

“Tone is used to mean adversarial language in Parliament,” says Dr Sylvia Shaw, author of Women, Language and Politics. Her research has found that the way in which language is used in Parliament intersects with a wide range of factors that include gender, race and class – but that also include other institutional factors such as ministerial position, length in office and presumed status. 

“These institutional and social factors interact and come together in these sorts of cases to make a senior minister like Hancock think they can put people down or that they don’t have to take this kind of criticism,” she told Byline Times

A week before Helen Whately took Allin-Khan’s tone to task, the Home Office Minister Victoria Atkins criticised Labour MP Zarah Sultana’s mode of address. 

Speaking with authority in the House of Commons is coded masculine. So anyone speaking in this way who isn’t coded masculine or white is seen as speaking out of place

Dr Sylvia Shaw

When Sultana repeated England player’s Tyrone Mings’ tweet – stating that the Home Secretary had “stoked the fires of racism” before claiming that she and Boris Johnson were “feigning outrage” over the racist abuse towards black players after the Euro 2020 final – Atkins said that she had “hoped we were going to be able to conduct this debate in a measured way”. She continued, in a pained voice, by saying: “I hope we will be able to lower the tone a little bit.” When Sultana called out while Atkins was speaking, Atkins said: “Shouting at me across the despatch box is not going to help.” 

Again, while Sultana’s speech was robust and passionate, the examples of ‘stoking the fires of racism’ that she gave were known statements made by the Prime Minister and Home Secretary. It is true that interrupting across the despatch box is generally considered bad form – but it is something that male MPs, particularly white male MPs, do on a regular basis. Remember how often former Speaker John Bercow needed to bellow “orderrrrrrrrrrr” during the Brexit debates? 

Dawn Butler has also had her tone policed before. Conservative MP James Cleverly tweeted in 2018 that the MP “strikes a shockingly wrong tone”. 

Because the concept of tone in Parliament is used with regards to adversarial language, it has been used against white male MPs as well as women of colour. However, more often than not, the context is very different.

In a debate in which Jacob Rees-Mogg referred to the London Mayor Sadiq Khan as “Red Khan” and criticised the “loony left-wing wheezes”, for instance, the Speaker asked him to “dampen the tone down”.

But, for Dr Shaw, “we can immediately see that these cases bear no relation to the recent put-downs”. 


The ‘Angry Black Woman’

The reason why women MPs of colour may face greater censure than their white, male peers (quite literally, in the Lords) could be due to racialised stereotypes. 

This includes the stereotype of the ‘angry black woman’, whereby women of colour are accused of ‘incivility’ when expressing their views – even when those views are expressed in a measured way (and, of course, women of colour should equally be allowed to express their views in an impassioned, even angry manner). 

The stereotype was used by former President Donald Trump against the current Vice President Kamala Harris – the first woman and the first person of colour to occupy the role. He described her as “nasty”, “angry” and “a sort of mad woman”. Maxine Waters, a black Democratic politician, was also described by Trump as making “crazy rants”. 

There is also the stereotype that “speaking with authority in the House of Commons is coded masculine,” says Dr Shaw. “So anyone speaking in this way who isn’t coded masculine or white is seen as speaking out of place.”

When MPs return after recess in the autumn, it will be interesting to see who will be asked to watch their tone – and who won’t.

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