Protecting local democracy

From online racist and sexist abuse and death threats, to damaged cars and bullying of councillors’ children at school – those holding public office are experiencing an increased level of public harassment.

That was the experience detailed by councillors and officers at a workshop on protecting local democracy held at the LGA’s recent annual conference.

Cllr Ruth Dombey OBE, Deputy Chair of the LGA’s Leadership Board (pictured, centre), who chaired the workshop, admitted she had come off Twitter because “it’s so toxic”.

“Everyone is agreeing with me that it’s getting worse. It’s affecting everyone in public life, and it will have an impact on people who may be thinking about standing for local and national government and, as a result, are changing their minds,” she said.

“It’s really important that we start to talk about the value of what we do and how it isn’t acceptable that some people are being treated in such an abysmal way.”

She and others were encouraged not to give up on online democracy by Seyi Akiwowo, Founder and Executive Director of Glitch (pictured left), an advocacy group committed to ending online abuse.

Ms Akiwowo, a former Newham councillor, said: “We all need to play our part in reclaiming our online spaces – in seeing online spaces like our parks, community centres and high streets – because, at the moment, they are being weaponised, hijacked. It is now a threat to our democratic engagement, our democracy, so we all have to play our part in claiming it back.”

She advised delegates to find out about their rights online and learn how to stay safe, citing the example of Vicky Ford MP (Con, Chelmsford), who has ‘rules of engagement’ set out on her Facebook page.

“If you break one of those rules, she blocks you from her Facebook page because sending her abuse is not democracy. Sending abuse is not healthy discussion and debate.”

Cllr Debbie Wilcox, Chair of the Welsh LGA and Leader of Newport Council (pictured, far right), cited figures showing that, while more than 26 per cent of councillors in Wales had experienced abuse or harassment from the local community, nearly 20 per cent reported it within their own council and 10 per cent within their own local group or party.

“As much as we need to take a stand against harassment and intimidation from outside, we must take a zero tolerance approach to it from within too. What behaviours, cultures and standards do we set within our own chambers and with our own political groups?” she said.

Cllr Hannah Dalton, Deputy Chair of the LGA’s Safer and Stronger Communities Board (pictured, second right), also highlighted the damaging effect of “tribal” politics.

“We seem to have lost the middle ground… It’s become less about debate or opinion and now is more about taking a position, holding onto it for dear life, and even when you don’t have the facts you carry on,” she said.

There are no simple solutions to complex problems of intimidation and social cohesion. But councils and councillors need to “set the example” and to “constantly take the time to understand our local communities and the challenges they face”, she added.

Cllr Dave Stewart (pictured, second left), a former police officer, told delegates that, when asked about making tough decisions as Leader of Isle of Wight Council, he used to say: “No-one dies in a council.”

“I now question saying that because I’m seeing people who are being put in threatening situations. It’s horrible.”

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