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Debating and disagreeing with one another is a healthy part of democracy, but abuse and intimidation crosses the line into dangerous territory, particularly when it is frequent and constant.
The increasing level of abuse and intimidation aimed at local politicians risks preventing elected members from representing the communities they serve, deterring individuals from standing for election and undermining local democracy.
The 2022 LGA Councillor census was a time-limited survey directed at all councillors in England which took place between January and February 2022. The survey found that 7 in 10 respondents experienced abuse or intimidation in last twelve months. Only 27 per cent reported to have never had any such experiences.
Warrington’s politicians have therefore joined forces on a campaign that encourages healthy debate and calls out abuse and harassment.
“It’s really important that the public are able to engage with local politicians and that politicians feel safe to engage with the public”, said Deputy Leader, Cllr Cathy Mitchell, who is leading the campaign. “We are bound to disagree and to be held to account – that’s politics. Once the line is crossed into harassment and abuse, then it’s not okay.”
MP for Warrington South, Andy Carter, said: “The murder of my friend and colleague, Sir David Amess, last year was an awful reminder of the danger politicians, both local and national, face in their day to day work. I fully endorse the values of the Debate Not Hate campaign, there’s simply no excuse for abuse and intimidation towards elected representatives.
“No matter our political disagreements, all elected members are working towards a common cause – to better the lives of those in our communities. I’ve always taken the view that it’s good to debate the policy and the ideas but when you start to attack the person you’ve lost the argument.”
MP for Warrington North, Charlotte Nichols, said: “Sadly, abuse and intimidation in public life has increased over recent years. While, as politicians of all parties, we expect that there will be disagreements and heated debate at times, unfortunately nastiness and personal attacks have become common place.
“The toxicity routinely experienced can often cause a great deal of stress and anxiety on the lives of those involved in politics and their families. Such is the volume of abuse that is experienced, many people are being actively discouraged from standing for public office. And others are standing down prematurely, which is a great shame and a big loss to all of our political systems.
“I am happy to support the Debate Not Hate campaign. I understand that tackling this issue is no small challenge and something that won’t be resolved overnight. However, I hope that by coming together in this way, we can both highlight the issues and send a clear message that abuse and intimidation has no place in politics.”
Leader of the Council, Cllr Russ Bowden, said: “I have been physically assaulted on the doorstep and I’ve been staked out and stalked. I am routinely subject to online abuse, outright lies and harassment that was so serious that it had to be reported to the police. Even my family have been intimidated and had their privacy violated. It isn’t fair comment, banter or a little bit of fun. It is abuse and it isn’t part of anyone’s job description. We have reached the point where we have to stand up to harassers and abusers. We should always call it out when it happens, regardless of party loyalties. I am committed to working with all colleagues on the Debate Not Hate campaign in Warrington.”
Leader of Warrington’s Conservative group, Cllr Nigel Balding, said: “Democracy and freedom of speech are foundations of our society and we have to keep working together to protect them. Currently there is much that we can do to encourage debate that is truthful and respectful, particularly on social media. I fully support this campaign which helps guard against intimidation and harassment - these are enemies of democracy and the right to free speech in Warrington.”
Leader of Warrington’s Liberal Democrat group, Cllr Bob Barr, said: “When speaking to councillors from other parties, face to face, or attending the national cross-party Local Government Association conference, it is clear that far more unites local councillors than divides them.
“Whatever party runs a local authority, the problems faced by local government are the same. Too much demand, too little resource to meet that demand and those who suffer most are the most vulnerable.
“Yet, social media commentators, sometimes joined by councillors or aspiring councillors, turn that generic problem into an opportunity to spread disinformation and to resort to abuse. This doesn’t help anybody and simply brings politics and local administration into disrepute. That is why I support the LGA’s ‘Debate not Hate campaign’ and the parallel NALC ‘Civility and Respect’ project. We can achieve more by seeking consensus, agreeing on facts and debating the options in a more open and civilised way.”
Warrington Borough Council’s Chief Executive, Professor Steven Broomhead MBE, said: “Council officers are also increasingly subject to abuse and intimidation. The growing trend regarding social media abuse is now affecting the health of officers and their families. It is not appropriate or fair and we fully support this campaign”.
Local politicians in Warrington have therefore agreed to three key pledges: