Debate Not Hate – the LGA’s call for change

By Cllr James Jamieson | 28 June 2022

Councillors are at the centre of local democracy. We are representatives of our local areas, working on behalf of communities, providing a vital link between councils and residents.

It is a privilege and responsibility to be elected to public office, something which anyone should feel safe and proud to enter into. However over the last few years, I have had far too many worrying conversations of increasing public intimidation and toxicity of debate aimed at politicians, particularly at a local level. This is having a real impact on democracy, with councillors standing down and many public-spirited residents turning away from standing as candidates.

Debating and disagreeing with one another has always been, and will continue to be, a healthy part of democracy, but abuse and intimidation crosses the line into unacceptable and dangerous territory. Public intimidation only serves to silence democratic voices and deter people from engaging with politics. We’ve seen this in the most extreme cases with the tragic murders of MPs Jo Cox and Sir David Amess, but they cannot become the norm.

We are now starting to build a picture of the level of abuse and intimidation councillors receive on a daily basis for simply carrying out the role in their community. The Local Government Association’s (LGA) recent census, which surveyed just over 5,000 councillors, found that a startling seven in 10 councillors had reported experiencing abuse or intimidation in the last 12 months, with one in 10 of those experiencing it frequently.

In order to gain a deeper understanding of the impact this is having on councillors and the scale of the issue, the LGA launched a call for evidence on abuse and intimidation of councillors in October 2021. Over the course of six months, we received just over 400 responses. Respondents to the call for evidence were asked to share their personal experiences of abuse and intimidation as councillors or candidates or abuse of councillors they had witnessed. The findings are outlined alongside seven recommendations in the LGA’s new report, Debate Not Hate: The impact of abuse on local democracy’, to be launched at our annual conference.

What stood out was the frequency and severity of abuse aimed at councillors; almost 98% of respondents who had experienced abuse or intimidation, had experienced it multiple times and the abuse ranged from death threats to stalking. Worryingly this appears to have resulted in a normalisation of this behaviour, something which is both expected and accepted by councillors and authorities. This cannot be right and might partly explain why 37% of respondents had not sought any support in relation to their experiences.

Our findings also shone a light on the impact this can have on the person professionally too and on local government as a whole, with just over a quarter of councillors saying they would not stand for the next election and 31% were undecided.

‘I could not run in another election. I would not want to put my family through the stress and anxiety.’ – Annoymous respondent, LGA’s call for evidence

We know that councillors have a unique and rewarding position of being deeply rooted and visible in their communities, however we found that this can also place them in a more vulnerable position. Sixty four per cent of respondents had been abused or intimidated in person, including through using threatening and discriminatory language and physical abuse such as spitting.

‘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.’

– Anonymous respondent

Online spaces pose their own issues through the ease of anonymity and with the 24-hour nature of social media, councillors felt unable to disengage from abuse, describing it as ‘The Wild West’.

To better understand the reasons why perpetrators directed abuse at councillors, we asked respondents to comment on whether they felt there were particular triggers that acted as catalysts. 59 per cent believed the abuse was triggered by specific events, examples given included unsuccessful planning and licensing applications and for more urban councils, Low Traffic Neighbourhood issues.

‘The problem is that abuse often starts as low level…This creates a sense that local councillors are easy game for abuse.’ – Anonymous respondent

The report’s seven recommendations range from calling for better support from social media companies to asking for absolute clarity that councillors can withhold their home addresses from the public register of pecuniary interests and a government working group with relevant stakeholders to tackle the issue through a dedicated action plan.

Central to all the recommendations is ensuring the safety of local politicians, and a key part of that is the need to prioritise taking a proactive and preventative approach. This is to ensure the abuse stops happening in the first place in order to reverse the increasingly toxic political environment for prospective and current politicians.

One way this could be achieved is through the police replicating the successful approaches taken with MPs or candidates during elections which provides them with a specialist Single Point of Contact for councillors in the local police force. Rightly so, members of parliament have robust security support, yet councillors, who are intrinsically linked to their community and resident networks, have yet to achieve that parity.

Another approach would be having a Safety Liaison Officer (SLO), as is provided for journalists across many forces in England; SLOs oversee cases related to crime against journalists and intervene only when necessary.

We saw plenty of examples of good practice by police who took a coordinated and risk-based approach to harassment and safety; we need to see this replicated across the country to ensure there’s a sense of responsibility and understanding that abuse and intimidation do not go hand in hand with local politics.

Providing consistent support must also be a priority, councillors should not tackle this alone. When asked about support from agencies and self-protection, 63% said they had sought some form of support, however almost a third said they got this from their peers, friends and family. This further places the burden on those who may not be equipped or have the power to deal with such sensitive issues. What was encouraging to see was that there are councils and relevant agencies out there providing effective support for those who sought it. But it’s clear responses vary from council to council, and we need to see a concerted effort to coordinate and work effectively together with relevant partners.

‘Officer and member colleagues were very helpful and supportive. The police were fantastic – took statement, gave me advice and helped me enhance security at my home, put me on an emergency call list.’ – Anonymous respondent

We also need to recognise our own behaviours as politicians and think about how we interact with each other. Poor behaviour, inuendo and personal abuse in the council chamber, as well as the House of Commons, does not set a good example for the public to follow.

We are committed to tackling this issue head on at the LGA, which is why we have launched our new campaign, Debate Not Hate to ensure our recommendations are amplified and pushed for. We are asking councillors to join our call for civility and to sign our public statement asking for a government working group, in partnership with the LGA, to bring together relevant agencies and partners to produce an action plan.

‘All organisations could take it more seriously; being robust enough to handle personal attacks should not be a pre-requisite for public office.’ – Anonymous respondent

Appropriate responses and preventative measures from the police, councils and political parties should not be a postcode lottery. It’s important we tackle this collectively; we all have a responsibility.

The challenge isn’t small, but it’s something all corners of society need to come together to tackle, sending a clear message that abuse and intimidation has no place in politics.

The right engagement matters.

Cllr James Jamieson is Chairman of the Local Government Association which represents more than 350 councils across England and Wales.

This article is sponsored content for The MJ

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