Councillors have backed calls to address the “abuse and intimidation of politicians” amid “increasing levels of toxicity” having a “detrimental impact on local democracy”.
A motion was raised at the latest full authority meeting of Sunderland City Council by leading Labour politicians, who noted the issue can prevent councillors from representing their community and deter people from standing for election.
Put forward by councillor Claire Rowntree, deputy council leader, said stopping the normalisation of abuse “begins in the council chamber” and they all must set an example and understand “the ramifications of toxic politics”.
Actions to be taken include the council writing to the government to ask them to work with the Local Government Association (LGA) to develop and implement a plan to address the abuse and intimidation of politicians.
The motion is linked to the LGA’s ‘debate not hate’ campaign aimed at encouraging healthy debate and improving support for local politicians.
Councillors from all political parties gave examples of unsavoury behaviour they had experienced during their time in office.
This ranged from “poison pen” letters, malicious emails and texts, harassment, intimidation, being followed, and lies spread in election leaflets and on social media.
The meeting heard abuse experienced by councillors has included misogyny, homophobic slurs and threats to family members.
The motion was unanimously supported by full council (at the meeting on Wednesday, 24 January), although several stressed the importance of free speech, robust debate and legitimate criticism not being stifled.
Cllr Rowntree, in raising the motion, said although the council is making progress on the issue, there is still more work to do.
She added: “No-one should ever find it okay to suffer abuse, hate, intimidation or harassment, it undermines democracy and prevents people standing for election.
“This must be taken seriously and not in any way normalised or framed as public expression.
“We do not need this insidious behaviour that makes good people turn away from political and civic life.”
The Labour councillor reassured it was “not about suppressing democratic accountability, nor is it about stemming robust debate”.
Councillor Paul Edgeworth, leader of the Liberal Democrat group, said they supported the motion in principle, adding they “need to make sure that people aren’t put off engaging in local democracy”.
He continued: “We just don’t want it to lead to any one-upmanship or political gain, and we can hopefully do so in a manner that doesn’t stifle the cut and thrust of political debate.”
He added Sunderland Labour representatives “also need to take a look at themselves about some of the behaviour” displayed in the past, although he acknowledged he thinks it’s “died off” in recent times.
Labour’s councillor Graeme Miller, city council leader, said he has faced “six years of threats” since taking up the top position of the authority.
He said: “Nobody should have to take threats, it just shouldn’t be allowed
“We as local government, like the national government, have to set the tone for that debate, we have to be bigger than political stunts.
“That sort of personal abuse has driven councillors out of this chamber because they could not put up with the fact that their families could not live with the pressure of it anymore.”
He acknowledged his group had “made mistakes in the past” and that all parties have got their “black sheep, who shouldn’t be doing that, and hopefully, we won’t see it”.
Councillors at the meeting highlighted local authority officers should also never be subject to such abuse.
Councillor Antony Mullen, Conservative group leader on the council, said his group supported the motion, but stressed they “still have a duty to protect free speech”.
He said: “One person’s desire to be shielded from criticism doesn’t necessarily give them the right to shut down what somebody has to say.”
His party colleague Councillor Dominic McDonough stressed “Respect starts in this chamber, and on the streets during campaigning”.
He added: “Sadly this is not always the case, we repeatedly see very personal attacks in politics, which don’t focus on policies, but on personalities.
“That makes people on the street think that this is acceptable, it isn’t, and we need to lead by example.
“We came into this with our eyes open and realised that we will be in the public eye, but we should never be in fear or be intimated for standing up for our communities.”
Liberal Democrat councillor Martin Haswell added: “I really do hope that this is more than just lip service and we all stick to it.”
The motion also includes taking a “zero-tolerance” approach to abuse, regularly reviewing support available to councillors and working with police to ensure reporting mechanisms are in place and a preventative approach taken to the risks raised.