County councillor feared for her life after physical threats

A councillor has said she feared for her life after receiving physical threats while out campaigning.

Samantha Townsend told Durham County Council she was accused of being a paedophile by her abusers during a sustained campaign of harassment.

"I was told to my face that I shall be dragged into the street and shot," the Labour politician said.

The Local Government Association (LGA) warned that abuse is preventing elected officials from doing their jobs.

A study by Durham County Council in 2022 revealed seven in 10 councillors were suffering such behaviour, the Local Democracy Reporting Service (LDRS) said.

At a meeting on Wednesday, members agreed to endorse the LGA's Debate Not Hate campaign

'Online harassment'

Ms Townsend said she had been targeted by abuse, including name-calling and fat-shaming, since being elected.

"I have been accused of being a paedophile - both in public, near my children, and online," the councillor for Shildon said.

"I have been subjected to a two year period of online harassment where a member of our community generated between eight and 10 Twitter accounts in order to harass me and other female Labour politicians."

Ms Townsend said such abuse had led her to fear for her life.

"This is very real. I had people who were afraid to let me walk home alone because of the abuse I was receiving."

The council meeting erupted in a round of applause after Ms Townsend shared her experience, while other councillors recalled suffering similar abuse.

Conservative Michelle Walton said an "atrocious" hate-mail letter targeting her was posted to her neighbours in Consett shortly after she was elected last year.

She told the meeting it had affected her family and put her son's school on alert.

"It was really scary and ended up with Special Branch involved due to the potential impact that this might have had," she said.

"Thankfully, nothing further has happened, and I was very well supported by those around us at the time. But there is no doubt it put a lot of fear in me."

'Deterring candidates'

The LGA said the rising level of abuse faced by politicians is harming local democracy.

It warned that it is also deterring individuals from standing for election in the future.

The Debate Not Hate campaign is meant to encourage healthy debate and improve support for politicians facing intimidation, according to the LGA.

Social media companies say they have rules to protect users from abuse, which include suspending, restricting or closing accounts.

The Crown Prosecution Service said trolling (sending abusive and hurtful comments on social media) can be prosecuted under the Malicious Communication Act 1988 and the Communications Act 2003.

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