Halting a rise in hatred

By Ann McGauran | 01 December 2021

Oldham MBC’s leader Cllr Arooj Shah says that she and other elected representatives across political parties in the council have been subjected to a ‘truly toxic’ regular campaign of harassment.

Now leaders of all the political parties in the borough have signed a pledge committing them to treat each other with respect and decency.

Writing exclusively for The MJ the week after the funeral of MP Sir David Amess following a fatal stabbing, she believes the best way to tackle hatred – expressed both online and in real life – is by ensuring elected representatives work well together, leading by example, with ‘mutual respect’. In her view the abuse she’s experienced has been driven by ‘the colour of her skin’, her religion and her gender.

Cllr Shah said she has been the target of regular death threats in the last few months, and it appears that instances of harassment and worse targeted at political figures are on the rise.

Cllr Joan McTigue told The MJ that last week a member of the public burst into the chamber of Middlesbrough Council during a meeting and was physically and verbally aggressive towards her.

The leader of the Local Government Association’s (LGA) Labour group Cllr Nick Forbes – who has withdrawn from social media over abuse – has already suggested the sector should have a ‘serious conversation’ with the Crown Prosecution Service so they would prosecute people who ‘peddle hatred’.

Are pledges of good behaviour in council chambers, and possible new legislation to tackle hate crime likely to be enough on their own to curb abuse of local politicians?

Managing director homes at the Pinnacle Group Claire Kober is a former leader of Haringey LBC and former chair of London Councils. Ms Kober said: ‘The level of attacks on Parliamentarians start to show a really worrying trend, but I am concerned that we have forgotten the vulnerability of local politicians and particularly local politicians that occupy prominent positions, either because of the views they espouse or the places they represent, or because they are different – people like Arooj.’

In her view, while legislation ‘is important…actually the starting point for this is just a little more respect, consideration and kindness in both our politics and our public discourse’.

Chief executive of the Local Government Information Unit (LGiU) Dr Jonathan Carr-West said: ‘I think there’s something about how, as commentators and political participants, we behave on social media. I also think Cllr Forbes’s idea is interesting and worth exploring. But Arooj’s point about us all committing to lead by example is more likely to have a long- term impact. I think there is a issue about how councillors behave to each other in the chamber, in real life, and that not always being as good as it could be.’

Sophie Walker is a former leader and founder of the Women’s Equality Party. She also founded Activate – a movement that helps women transition from local community activism to becoming political candidates, with a particular focus on minority representation. As a feminist campaigner she has also been the focus of misogynistic abuse, and in 2020 obtained a restraining order against an alleged stalker.

She set Cllr Shah’s experience of harassment in the context of what she argues is ‘very poor representation of our minoritised communities, who are made vulnerable through structural inequalities – and that is what we have to fix’.

In her view, there is a very specific and particular problem with the representation of women in local government, and particularly black, asian and minority ethnic (BAME) women, and disabled and working class women.

To stop violence and harassment of women in public places including council chambers she believes ‘we have to fundamentally challenge the perception that women don’t have a right to be in those places – and the only way we can do that is to systematically lift the barriers to their participation’.

While she welcomes that Cllr Shah’s colleagues have signed the pledge, she says it’s going to be very difficult to be hopeful of any long-term change ‘unless Oldham MBC and councils across the UK make it possible for women to get elected and participate’.

Neither is she optimistic about the potential for a new law to act as a deterrent ‘so long as women are expected to report the crimes against them to a police force and a justice system that is also systemically racist and sexist.’

Cllr James Jamieson, chairman of the Local Government Association, said: ‘Becoming and serving as a councillor is a responsibility, a privilege and a hugely rewarding undertaking. However, we are aware that an increasing number of councillors and candidates are being subjected to abuse, threats and public intimidation, undermining the principles of free speech, democratic engagement and debate.

‘Abuse of public servants is never acceptable and poses a threat to democracy. As early first steps to address this, councillors should be included in the Home Office review into the safety of MPs and their staff in light of the tragic death of Sir David Amess. We support the inclusion of a provision to ban anyone who has intimidated candidates, councillors and campaigners from standing for election or holding public office in the Elections Bill which is currently going through Parliament. However, more may be needed to protect councillors and local democracy.

‘As well as highlighting our councillor Guide to Handling Intimidation, we are calling for evidence of abuse and intimidation of councillors across the country to further understand the experience of councillors and ensure robust measures can be taken to tackle this growing issue.’

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