This article is part of our local elections support for LGIU members and wider local government.
People who have been on the campaign trail as candidates or activists know that some experiences can be a bit of a slog. Shoving leaflets through door after door, getting your finger smashed in a viciously spring loaded letterbox or encountering over-territorial dogs can be downsides. On the other hand, there are many upsides. Meeting people where they live to hear about their aspirations for their communities can be a joyful experience. Hearing about their problems can be heart wrenching, but knowing you can at least try to make a difference can be inspirational. Even just a regular, ‘every day’ human connection on the doorstep talking about kids and schools and parking and street lighting or even rubbish can be really energising.
But then there are experiences that are just bad. Or dangerous. The UK remains a relatively safe place to be a politician, but we have certainly seen a number of incidents over the years.
While we think that any physical violence or threats of violence should be beyond the pale; they really aren’t.
The US has a very different political context, but recent research and congressional testimony from the Carnegie expert in political violence Rachel Kleinfeld shows that there has been a rise in the number of ‘normal people’ who think it’s acceptable to issue threats against politicians, engage in criminal damage or even hurt other people to achieve political aims.
“By February 2021, 25% of Republicans and 17% of Democrats felt threats against the other party’s leaders were justifiable, and 19% of Republicans and 10% of Democrats believed it was justified to harass ordinary members of the other party.”
As a consequence, we’ve seen the horrific incidents at the US capitol, the vicious hammer attack on House Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s husband, and the series of drive-by shootings at state and local politicians in New Mexico to name just a few.
Things may be a bit less heated in the UK, but incidents are not unknown and not even that uncommon. The tragic deaths of Sir David Amess and Jo Cox were the latest of a number of MPs killed in service since WWII. There have also been a number of incidents that have been less lethal including Iain Duncan Smith having a traffic cone slammed on his head, which may seem comically bizarre, but we’d be very wrong to laugh it off. When the LGIU last called for examples of violence on the campaign trail, councillors wrote to us about being punched, assaulted and threatened.
Political violence or the threat of political violence is acid to the fabric of democracy. It may be particularly damaging to local democracy where there is less protection afforded to councillors and candidates. The Evening Standard published an article in November 2021 which recounts the ‘vile tide of misogyny and abuse’ that councillors in London have experienced – including threats of rape and beheading. At election time last year, the Guardian reported that there was a sense of ‘escalating hostility’ and highlighted the link between a toxic environment for councillors and candidates (particularly women and ethnic minorities) and the number of seats that were left uncontested.
“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.”
At LGIU, the last thing we want to do is discourage people from standing for election. Councillors at our member organisations tell us frequently about how exhausting, relentless but ultimately rewarding it is to represent and serve their communities. We want to stand with you to condemn and end violence and threats of violence, for your sake and for the sake of us all. But we also want you to be careful.
So as part of our wider election support, we have developed free guidance on personal safety (free registration required). And we’re keen to hear your stories and suggestions for staying safe, what kind of issues have you encountered and how are local authorities ensuring the safety of their councillors, candidates and staff at election time? Let us know here.
We’re also offering a training session on personal safety (completely free for members, £10 for non-members). The Safety and Self-Protection Booster is online Tuesday 15 March 2023 from 2pm to 4pm GMT – you can find out more and register here.