Firebombs and death threats: councillors need more protection, say UK bodies

More must be done to protect councillors from abuse, according to local government bodies, as those on the frontline of local democracy describe a “truly toxic” political environment where online aggression spills over into real-life behaviour.

Candidates for council elections on Thursday across the UK have shared their experiences of escalating hostility as the chair of the Local Government Association (LGA), councillorJames Jamieson, warned that “an increasing number … are being subjected to abuse, threats and intimidation both online and in-person, undermining the principles of free speech, democratic engagement and debate”.

In Scotland, the local authority umbrella body Cosla is working with Police Scotland to develop personal safety briefings for the new cohort of councillors, a move welcomed by Pippa Hadley, who is standing for re-election as a Scottish Green councillor in the Highlands.

Hadley was assaulted on 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 received a custodial sentence.

“The whole point of being a local councillor is that people know who you are but that also makes you more vulnerable,” says Hadley, who brought a motion to Highland council this spring calling for a personal safety audit for all new members after 5 May.

“People do seem to be more aggressive, partly because of the effects of lockdown. It’s as if those online keyboard warriors have slipped into real life.”

Graeme Campbell is walking away from a position he has held for 15 years at South Lanarkshire council after a sustained campaign of harassment, including three fire and acid attacks at his home. The former Conservative councillor is certain the attacks were carried out by criminals as a result of work he was doing in his elected role.

Last month, the candidate who hoped to succeed him withdrew after an onslaught of online abuse and intimidation.

“As a councillor, you need to be part of a community and by default people know where you live. As soon as you stand you are at the mercy of the public,” says Campbell. “This isn’t about one particular demographic but coming from all kinds of people. People aren’t standing for the council because of it.”

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 the subject of police inquiries. Last week, Welsh councillors spoke out about the abuse they faced online and from colleagues that had led them to step down at this election, resulting in dozens of uncontested seats.

Cosla and the LGA offer resources to councillors for handling intimidation and online abuse, and the LGA is calling for evidence of abuse across the country “to further understand the experience of councillors and to ensure robust measures can be taken to tackle this growing issue”.

Arooj Shah, the Labour leader of Oldham council, had her car firebombed last year and is facing an ongoing campaign against her. She said: “The tone of political discourse has become truly toxic and this year’s election campaign is no different. I’ve faced racist and misogynist abuse, harassment, death threats and physical intimidation.

“Of course, I welcome challenge on my politics – that goes with the job. But nobody should endure hatred and personal abuse in their work.”

The situation is particularly stark for female council members. At the end of March, the last session of Glasgow city council closed with a motion setting out the barriers women face getting into politics, put forward by Scottish Labour’s Maggie McTernan and supported by colleagues from the SNP and Greens. “With each woman who spoke, it was like ticking off a list: online abuse, harassment, being ignored in meetings, struggling to balance work and caring,” she said.

“We’ve created a situation where people are more likely to be abusive because of this antagonistic, combative political culture. It’s a problem throughout society but we should be modelling something better in politics.”

The Wolverhampton Labour councillor Beverley Momenabadi says she is too scared to campaign alone and carries two alarms with her at all times – a rape alarm and a GPS alarm connected to a security centre.

“Carrying those around with me regularly when I’m just carrying out my council duties and campaigning isn’t something we should have to do. But because of my experiences, I feel that I have to 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 handing out leaflets who indecently exposed himself to her.

“People are obviously doing this stuff online and seeing no consequences, and I do think some of that transfers into real life. It does make me wonder how other young women must feel about wanting to take up a political position.”

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