The LGA has launched a campaign to tackle abuse and intimidation of councillors.
Councillors are the heart of local communities, helping residents to express what they want for their local area and highlighting their concerns.
It is a privilege to be entrusted to champion local residents’ views, and councillors are proud to serve their communities in this way, usually without reservation.
However, over the past few years, councillors have raised concerns about the levels of abuse and intimidation they encounter fulfilling their role.
The Committee on Standards in Public Life shone a light on this issue with its reports on intimidation in public life and local government ethical standards, in which it commented that “the scale and intensity of intimidation is now shaping public life”.
Since then, there has been evidence amassing that the abuse and intimidation of politicians is negatively impacting local democracy.
Here, it is essential to consider the difference between debate and disagreement, and abuse, intimidation, harassment and harm.
Of course, residents who are unhappy with their council have every right to express their objection; debate and constructive challenge are integral to local scrutiny processes.
However, this must be done without personalised abuse, intimidation or threats, which only serve to silence democratic voices and make politics an unwelcoming place for prospective politicians.
This is all the more important as we grapple with some of the most challenging policy questions we have ever encountered. Only together, and with the full input from our communities, can we rise to this challenge.
We are now working to build an evidence base over the long term with our LGA councillor census. This year’s census of more than 5,000 councillors found that as many as seven in 10 reported experiencing abuse or intimidation in the past 12 months, with one in 10 experiencing it frequently.
To understand more about councillors’ experiences of abuse and what can be done to prevent and tackle it, we launched a ‘call for evidence’ in October 2021.
In the first six months, we received more than 400 responses highlighting various issues. However, some common factors and themes stood out.
The variability of support offered to councillors experiencing abuse and intimidation was a clear and consistent theme in the evidence. In some cases, the response and support available were exemplary; in others, virtually non-existent.
Respondents shared experiences of being shunted between different agencies, like the council and the police or their political party, without a clear sense of who was responsible for their safety and wellbeing.
The police response also reportedly varied from place to place. In fact, some felt that the threshold for police intervention was set higher for councillors than for members of the public or members of parliament, leaving councillors feeling vulnerable.
This was compounded by the availability of councillors’ home addresses online.
“I have been abused on the street and threatened by being told, ‘I know where you live’… and I’ve been told to watch my back,” said one respondent.
“Respondents reported feeling depression and severe anxiety.”
Some responses indicated that councillors and candidates with protected characteristics were more likely to receive personalised abuse. Misogyny, racism and homophobia were particularly highlighted. Many said abuse was triggered by particular issues, such as planning decisions, low-traffic neighbourhoods, climate change policies, and vaccination programmes.
Others felt that abuse was not triggered by anything other than stepping forward to engage with residents in a public or online space.
Online spaces posed their own specific threats. Respondents felt online anonymity and a lack of appropriate regulation protected abusers and emboldened them to act with impunity, with one calling social media “the Wild West”.
The frequency and severity of abuse aimed at councillors stood out as very concerning. Almost 89 per cent of respondents who had experienced abuse or intimidation had experienced it multiple times, and the abuse ranged from death threats to stalking.
This appears to be linked to the normalisation of abusive behaviours, with councillors and those who support them expecting and accepting abuse by the public, which might then escalate to more serious incidents.
This normalisation could partly explain why 37 per cent of respondents chose not to seek support for abuse they had experienced.
Finally, and most disturbingly, our report – ‘Debate not hate: the impact of abuse on local democracy’ – draws out the impact of abuse and intimidation on individuals, their families and local democracy itself.
Respondents reported feelings of depression and severe anxiety linked to abuse they received because of their role. Sixty per cent said they were aware of others being unwilling to stand for election or leadership roles because of anticipated abuse.
In addition, two-thirds of respondents who said they would be unwilling to stand for re-election cited abuse and intimidation as an influencing factor.
“I could not run in another election. I would not put my family through the stress and anxiety,” said one.
We are committed at the LGA to tackling these issues head on, which is why we launched our new campaign, Debate Not Hate, at our annual conference in late June, alongside the report.
The campaign is asking local government leaders, the Government and relevant partners, such as the police, political parties and social media companies, to sign up to our call to come together through a government-convened working group to produce and implement an action plan that addresses abuse and intimidation, and improves councillor safety (see panel, below left).
We also want a change in legislation to clarify that councillors should be able to keep their home addresses private.
Thank you to all those conference delegates who signed our public statement in Harrogate – you can add your name online at www.local.gov.uk/debate-not-hate.
The report and these proposals were discussed at the conference by the then Local Government Minister Kemi Badenoch, the LGA’s Cllr Marianne Overton, parish council clerk Jackie Weaver, and political organiser Cllr Liron Velleman, from Hope Not Hate.
They discussed the importance of coming together to tackle this issue, described by Ms Badenoch as “coming out of our tribes” to support one another across political divides in calling out abuse from members of the public and others.
At the session, the importance of setting a high standard of political debate was a clear theme in the discussion and I would strongly echo this.
We need to recognise that our own behaviours as politicians and how we interact with each other is paramount. Poor behaviour at any political level casts a shadow over what it means to be a politician, and we must all strive to set good examples for others to follow.
All councillors should expect to be treated with respect while fulfilling their public role, and we all have a responsibility to send a clear message that abuse, intimidation and threats have no place in politics.
We need to be united in calling for change to tackle the increasing level of abuse and intimidation aimed at local politicians.
You can help by:
- signing our public statement calling for a government-convened working group to tackle the issue, at www.local.gov.uk/debate-not-hate
- reading and sharing our new report and its findings
- engaging on social media using the #DebateNotHate hashtag
- encouraging other councillors and organisations to get involved
- signing up at bit.ly/3NXChfW for regular updates on our democracy, civility and voluntary sector work
- sharing your personal experiences of abuse and/or intimidation – our call for evidence is still open at bit.ly/3P3PaGI.