Neil Merrick 06 April 2018

The harassment and intimidation of local councillors

Sheffield councillor Jayne Dunn had only been a cabinet member for six weeks when she started receiving abusive emails.

Some were relatively trivial, the sort of thing you hear in a school playground. But over the next three years they extended to threats of rape and death on social media. Along with council leader Julie Dore, she asked police to install a panic alarm in her home.

Most people were unaware of the threats the women were receiving until both went public at a council meeting last month [MAR]. While the threats against Dunn continued, she also received strong support from people she has helped during her six years as a councillor.

It was this, says Dunn, that helped persuade her to stand again as a councillor next month, even though her parents would rather she did not. 'Women are judged much more on social media than men. It’s used to intimidate women,' she says.

Dunn, currently cabinet member for neighbourhoods in Sheffield, is by no means the only councillor to face harassment and intimidation. A study last year by the Fawcett Society and Local Government Information Unit found 46% of women and 35% of men were concerned about abuse from electors if they stood as, or remained, councillors. Thirteen per cent of women and eight per cent of men feared violence.

Andrew Bazeley, policy manager at Fawcett, says there is a risk the 'general nastiness' politicians experience on social media is pushing people out of public life. 'People think that what you say on social media doesn’t count and isn’t real,' he says. 'For those who are on the other end, it’s very real.'

It is not just social media that is a problem. Within a month of being elected a Conservative councillor in Bridgend, Sadie Vidal began receiving threatening emails about fox hunting. One asked how she would feel to be 'ripped apart by dogs'.

Vidal, who is opposed to fox hunting, declined to report the email to the police, even though it was tantamount to a death threat. 'The people who sent it probably didn’t think what they did was illegal,' she says.

Vidal recognises that she is in the public eye and vulnerable to threats in a way she did not expect when she was elected last May. Following a report last year by the Committee on Standards in Public Life, the government agreed to remove the requirement that candidates in local elections publish home addresses on ballot papers - but not until 2019.

Candidates in general elections have been allowed to omit home address from ballot papers since 2009 but, as Vidal points out, electors sometimes frown upon candidates who fail to reveal where they live. 'People think you don’t have a local connection,' she says.

Jane Martin, former local government ombudsman and a member of the committee, is now leading a follow-up inquiry into ethical standards in local government that includes looking at measures to reduce intimidation. 'It’s really important that candidates are not deterred from standing,' she says. 'We must maintain diverse representation.'

With councillors facing harassment from electors, you might expect they would at least bind together. But that is far from the case. The Fawcett Society/LGIU study also flagged up the ‘macho culture’ in local government, with some male councillors guilty of misogyny against female colleagues.

Since 2012, when the Standards Board was abolished, councils have been responsible for maintaining standards through locally-agreed codes of practice. 'When local government is [operating] in a more deregulated environment, it’s a more severe risk,' adds Martin.

It is nearly two years since Labour MP Jo Cox was murdered in her constituency during the EU referendum campaign. Since then politics has become more polarised, as well as more personal, not just over Brexit but also local issues.

And it is not only women who are at risk. Earlier this year, Stoke-on-Trent council leader Dave Conway revealed to local journalists that he had a panic button at home. This was after a study showed physical assaults and verbal abuse against council employees in Stoke more than doubled during 2017.

Liam Booth-Smith, chief executive of the think tank Localis, says social media affords people anonymity, allowing them to say things they are unlikely to repeat to a person’s face. 'People are consuming information online that chimes with them and provokes anger.'

Where the abuser commits a criminal offence, he urges councillors and others to report it to the police. But he disputes that people who harass politicians on social media are engaging in politics. 'Abuse is not an attempt to engage or understand,' he says.

Within local government, young female councillors are most likely to experience harassment. Nicola Richards, who became a Conservative councillor in Dudley in her early 20s, briefly took her mobile number off the council website after receiving abusive phone calls. She also had to dissuade a disgruntled male voter from following her home, pointing out that she lived with her parents.

Richards, now 24, has worked a case worker for three MPs, and stresses that MPs generally face worse abuse. She hopes young people won’t be put off standing in local elections but adds: 'It would be nice if people stuck to criticising your decisions rather than have a go at you for other things.'

Along with tweets and emails, comments left by readers beneath online stories are a regular source of anxiety. Jayne Dunn’s home address in Sheffield was revealed by a reader after a local paper ran a story about her role in helping to settle Syrian refugees.

Debbie Wilcox, leader of the Welsh Local Government Association, would like to see an end to readers’ online comments, believing they are abused by what she describes as 'keyboard warriors'.

Councillors, she says, are caught in the eye of a storm and, along with those enforcing the law, are frantically trying to play catch up. 'We are the most accessible part of government,' says Wilcox, leader of Newport Council. 'One has to be aware of our personal safety.'

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