Firebombs and death threats: Councilors need more protection, UK agencies say | local government
More needs to be done to protect councilors from abuse, local government bodies say, as those on the front lines of local democracy describe a “really toxic” political environment where online aggression trickles down into real-life behavior.
Candidates in Thursday’s mayoral elections across the UK shared their experiences of escalating hostility as Local Government Association (LGA) chairman Councilor James Jamieson warned that “an increasing number …are subject to abuse, threats and intimidation both online and in person, undermining the principles of freedom of expression, democratic engagement and debate”.
In Scotland, local authority umbrella body Cosla is working with Police Scotland to develop personal safety briefings for the new cohort of councilors, a move hailed by Pippa Hadley, who is running for re-election as Scottish Green Councilor in the Highlands.
Hadley was attacked in the street by a member of the public last year who told her she was “a cow who should be shot against a wall”. The man was later charged and sentenced to a custodial sentence.
“The whole point of being a local councilor is that people know who you are, but it also makes you more vulnerable,” says Hadley, who tabled a motion in Highland council this spring calling for a personal safety audit to all new members after May 5th. .
“People seem to be more aggressive, partly because of the effects of the lockdown. It’s as if these online keyboard warriors have slipped into real life.
Graeme Campbell is leaving a post he held for 15 years on South Lanarkshire Council after a sustained campaign of harassment, including three fires and acid attacks at his home. The former Tory adviser is certain the attacks were carried out by criminals because of the work he was doing in his elected role.
Last month, the candidate who hoped to succeed him withdrew after a wave of online abuse and intimidation.
“As an advisor, you have to be part of a community and by default people know where you live. As soon as you stand up, you’re at the mercy of the public,” Campbell says. “It’s not about one particular demographic group, but about all kinds of people. People don’t show up for council because of this.
Across the UK there are similar stories and The Guardian is aware of a number of in-person incidents on the campaign trail that are being investigated by police. Welsh councilors last week spoke out about the abuse they faced online and from colleagues that led them to step down in this election, resulting in dozens of uncontested seats.
Cosla and the LGA offer resources for counselors to manage online bullying and abuse, and the LGA is calling for evidence of abuse across the country “to better understand counselors’ experiences and ensure robust measures can be taken to combat this growing problem”.
Arooj Shah, the Labor leader of Oldham Council, had her car set on fire last year and faces an ongoing campaign against it. She said: “The tone of political discourse has become really toxic and this year’s election campaign is no different. I have been the victim of racist and misogynistic abuse, harassment, death threats and physical intimidation.
“Of course I am open to challenges on my politics – it goes with the job. But no one should endure hatred and personal abuse in their work.
The situation is particularly difficult for women board members. At the end of March, Glasgow City Council’s final session ended with a motion outlining the obstacles women face in entering politics, put forward by Scottish Labor’s Maggie McTernan and supported by colleagues from the SNP and Greens. “With each woman speaking out, it was like ticking off a list: online abuse, harassment, being ignored in meetings, struggling to balance work and care,” she said.
“We have created a situation where people are more likely to be abusive because of this adversarial and combative political culture. It’s a problem across society, but we should model something better in politics.
Wolverhampton Labor Councilor Beverley Momenabadi said she was too scared to campaign alone and carried two alarms on her at all times – a rape alarm and a GPS alarm connected to a security centre.
“Regularly taking those who accompany me when I’m just carrying out my advisory and campaigning duties is not something we should have to do. But because of my experiences, I feel like I have to do it for my own safety. Momenabadi said she became particularly wary of her safety after an incident a few years ago when she was followed by a man while he was distributing leaflets who exposed himself to her in an indecent manner.
“People obviously do this stuff online and don’t see any consequences, and I think some of that carries over into real life. It makes me wonder how other young women must feel when they want to hold political office.