House of Commons debate on language in politics, 29 February 2024

Language in public life in the local context.

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Debate, disagreement and having different views are all part of a healthy democracy. However, there are growing concerns about the impact an increasing level of toxicity of debate is having on our democracy, including deterring underrepresented people from standing for election and representing their local communities.

Key messages

  • Councillors are at the centre of local democracy. Elected from amongst their local community, it is vital that councils reflect the diversity of the communities they represent when making decisions that directly impact the lives of residents. In councils in England, only 33 per cent of councillors are women; we, therefore, have further to go to break down the barriers to women entering and staying in politics and local government.
  • Our members cite a lack of pension contributions, parental leave and flexibility in attending council meetings as key challenges to women standing for election. However, over recent years, the issue of general and gendered abuse, harassment and threats has increased, with half of councillors saying abuse has increased in volume since they were first elected in the LGA’s more recent Debate Not Hate survey.
  • Abuse can prevent elected members from representing the communities they serve, and coupled with councillors’ vulnerability due to the availability of their personal information can dissuade people from standing for election. Additionally, our research indicates that women, Black and ethnic minority people and LGBTQIA+ people and those with multiple protected characteristics may experience more personalised and higher volumes of more vitriolic abuse, particularly online.
  • The LGA works hard through government-funded programmes, such as the Be a Councillor campaign, to promote the councillor role to target groups and improve representation on local councils. However, these candidates need to feel confident that if elected, they will be supported and protected from inappropriate levels of abuse, threats and harassment.
  • Everyone should be able to express their view, challenge others, criticise and disagree with other people’s views, opinions and policies in a robust but civil manner as a part of healthy and democratic debate. However, language and lines of argument that subject individuals, groups of people or organisations to personal attack are unacceptable and create a chilling effect on democracy.
  • This challenge is multi-faceted, and a coordinated effort is needed across the Government to tackle the issues such as the cumulative effect of pile-on abuse online and the normalisation of abuse of public figures that are affecting our democratic institutions and society.


Many politicians face abuse, online and offline, and this is negatively impacting democracy at a local and national level. This is putting people off from standing for election or pushing them to stand down from office, undermining local and national democracy and risking the loss of a whole generation of talented politicians with valuable skills, experience and expertise.

Growing concerns about abuse and councillor safety

Data collected by the LGA in 2021-2022 showed that seven in 10 councillors experienced abuse or intimidation in the previous twelve months, with 10 per cent saying they experienced it frequently. A similar proportion had felt personally at risk while fulfilling their councillor role. Refreshes to this dataset in June 2023 showed an increase in both these measures to eight in 10 councillors saying they’d experienced abuse or intimidation and felt personally at risk during the last year. Half of respondents to our survey in 2023 said the amount of abuse and intimidation they received had increased since they first served as a councillor.

Both persistent “low-level” abuse and single incidents of threat or aggression had a dramatic impact on victims and their families. As with parliamentarians, there are a wide range of contentious issues that have been seen to lead to abuse, harassment and intimidation of councillors, arising from heated debate and sometimes from deliberate mis or disinformation. 

There is evidence that increasing levels of toxicity of debate and abuse against public figures are having an impact on our country’s democratic processes at a national and local level. Research into abuse toward parliamentary candidates has supported anecdotal concerns that levels of abuse are increasing and that women, ethnic minority and LGBTQIA+ politicians receive more discriminatory abuse related to their personal characteristics. During the general election in 2019, concerns were raised over a number of female MPs who retired from politics and cited abuse they faced as a key factor in their decision-making. 

Online abuse

Discussion with LGA members suggests that many councillors continue to experience abuse online despite social media companies implementing some approaches to tackle the issue, including automated and human moderation of content and a range of options for users, including reporting messages or posts and blocking users. In particular, councillors highlight misogynistic, homophobic, racist and other forms of harassment in relation to protected characteristics. 

This is borne out by evidence of the experiences of different communities online. For example, 21 per cent of women in the UK have experienced online abuse or harassment at least once, with this most commonly coming from strangers (Amnesty International). This may be because much of the current approach depends on tackling content after it is posted, significant responsibility lies with the person receiving abuse and harassment, and there is a perceived limited success with the current approaches.

Councillors report a growing normalisation of abuse, particularly online, with pervasive attitudes that councillors and other people in public life are expected to be resilient to large volumes of abuse as part of their role. Three quarters of responses to the LGA Call for evidence of abuse and intimidation in 2021 said that they had faced multiple experiences of abuse on social media, making it the most common place for abuse to occur. The universal and 24-hour nature of social media also meant councillors felt unable to switch off from their role and create necessary boundaries between their public and homes lives, with abuse able to reach them in their homes at any time. This creates a high barrier to many people engaging in politics.

To improve the experience of all users online, users must be encouraged to be respectful of each other, including where there are opposing views. Improving media literacy is one part of this, ensuring users understand the impact of their posts on others, and are able to recognise the kinds of mis- and disinformation that can spark abuse of others. The other side is improving civility and respectful debate in wider society.

Councillor conduct

In addition to this, it is vital that work is done to promote healthy debate within councils. The LGA works to promote good standards in public life and the importance of councillors' role modelling good behaviour. This has included a Model Councillor Code of Conduct, which 63 per cent of English councils have adopted. The Code sets out  standards including how good debate can be conducted in a robust, but civil manner.The LGA also recognises that elected members should role model exemplary behaviours and expect the same from their interactions with each other and the public. The LGA has supported councillors with Digital Citizenship resources and guidance and Social media guidance to ensure they are empowered to articulate the high standards of debate they will accept online and hold themselves to these standards.


Name: Hannah Sadik
Job Title: Public Affairs & Communications Improvement Graduate
Phone: 020 3838 4844
Mobile: 07867 461578
Email: [email protected]