Abuse in local politics is harming our democracy

I have never felt my life was under threat, but I have witnessed my fair share of intimidation

July 04, 2024
Sadiq Khan is estimated to have received close to one million abusive messages since becoming Mayor of London. Image: Guy Corbishley / Alamy
Sadiq Khan is estimated to have received close to one million abusive messages since becoming Mayor of London. Image: Guy Corbishley / Alamy

Intimidation has long plagued our elected representatives, whether in the hallowed halls of Westminster or town hall chambers. This takes many forms—physical, verbal and psychological.

It can’t have been pleasant for Rishi Sunak or Keir Starmer when a member of the audience in a televised election debate asked them whether they were the best candidates for prime minister. That might not meet the threshold for intimidation, but it’s a jibe masquerading as a question, and no politician enters politics to be reviled on live TV.

It is impossible to police intimidation in every scenario, of course, but the stakes are extraordinarily high following the murders of MPs Jo Cox in 2016 and David Amess in 2021. Since then, concern is only growing among politicians that intimidation is more normalised and more frequent.

I have never felt my life was under threat, but as a councillor I have witnessed my fair share of intimidation. Committees determining applications—such as licensing or planning—can provoke significant resistance in local communities, which sometimes veers into harassment. A colleague was recently accused by members of the public of reducing the sunlight shining on their building, after they approved the construction of adjacent new homes. A female colleague recently received a kitchen utensil in the post, in what can only be described as a veiled threat, tinged with misogyny. Intimidatory emails are common. Unlike members of parliament, however, who have a team to open their emails and insulate them from the most abhorrent cases, councillors have no such support.

Mayors are not immune either. According to research by the Greater London Authority, Sadiq Khan is estimated to have received close to one million abusive messages since becoming Mayor of London. His race is cited as one of the reasons for the level of abuse he receives.

Who would want to represent their community on these terms? This is a primary reason behind the difficulty in attracting quality, motivated, committed politicians to a vocation so vital to the health of our democracy. A litany of government scandals in recent years—from partygate to betting-gate—are a reminder of how low standards can fall.  

According to the Local Government Association—the membership body that represents local authorities—81 per cent of councillors reported having experienced intimidation in the last 12 months. A similar proportion said they felt threatened while carrying out their role. Unfortunately, the vast majority of local authorities do not even bother monitoring the experiences of their councillors. Intimidation is so routine that, where formal reporting channels do exist, councillors may well not use them. Even when they do use formal channels, authorities have little to offer.

The Covert Councillor can reveal, following a Freedom of Information request, that Wakefield Council’s staff recorded 850 cases of abuse from the public over a five-year period, but it hasn’t recorded a single concern raised by councillors. It is highly unlikely that not a single councillor received abuse. Instead, since, as the FOI shows, Wakefield only signposts councillors to “resources on managing interaction with the public”, it is unsurprising that no local politician would have trust in such a system. Lancaster doesn’t keep a record of the abuse that councillors receive either—they’re simply signposted to the police. 

In Bexley, one representative referred to as “Councillor B” reported their tyres having been slashed. FOI requests also revealed that, in Hackney, 14 incidents were reported by councillors over 24 months. In Staffordshire, 73 per cent of councillors received abuse within a 12-month period. In Tendring, Essex, despite staff significantly outnumbering councillors, councillors reported more cases of intimidation.

Beyond the abuse that Sadiq Khan receives on social media, the Greater London Authority’s Public Liaison Unit records the most serious cases, with Khan on the receiving end of one hate crime per month, my FOIs revealed.

Anecdotally, the intimidation that politicians receive is more regular and more serious. Social media has exacerbated it—and artificial intelligence is beginning to be used for nefarious reasons, too. This is an unacceptable state of affairs. Intimidation against politicians harms our democracy, but not enough is being done. A first step might be as simple as local authorities taking seriously the intimidation that elected representatives are subjected to.

In February, Rishi Sunak announced that on, a needs basis, councillors are now entitled to have a dedicated named police contact for raising concerns, under Operation Bridger, which was established to protect MPs. More than one colleague I know has been encouraged to install security equipment. That’s despite the legal requirement that councillors have their home address on their webpage.

On the precipice of a new government, and a new era for the country, if we are serious about protecting our fragile democracy, protecting local politicians would be a good place to start.