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Facebook abuse of politicians must end, say Tonbridge and Malling councillors

Two female councillors have made a plea for more mutual respect both from the public and from their colleagues in the council.

Cllr Anna Cope (Green), who represents Cage Green and Angel Ward at Tonbridge and Malling Council, said: “I’ve received some pretty hateful comments on social media.

Cllr Anna Cope speaking in the council chamber
Cllr Anna Cope speaking in the council chamber

“I’ve also received emails from a member of the public making very personal comments about my appearance in a way that has made me extremely uncomfortable.”

But Cllr Cope, a secondary school teacher, said that disrespectful behaviour could even be found in the council chamber.

At a meeting of the full council, she told colleagues: “It’s fine to disagree. It’s good to debate and discuss, but it isn’t good to mock or belittle, or be impolite.”

She said: “I have felt uncomfortable at times speaking here in this chamber, when other members have been so loudly disagreeing with my point when I am talking that I’ve had to stop.

She said: “The council chamber is our workplace. The same standards that we would expect in a professional setting should also apply here.”

Cllr Lee Athwal
Cllr Lee Athwal

Cllr Lee Athwal (Green) agreed with her. She said: “I’ve had the same sort of experience.

“There’s been a lot of talk recently about people being attacked on social media.

“Well, we set the tone here. If we can’t be polite to each other in the chamber, we can’t expect people to be polite to us on social media.

“We don’t have to mock people or make loud comments when they are speaking.”

Cllr Dennis King (Con) suggested that the way forward was for councillors to look to their own behaviour.

I was called Tory scum

He said: “We have first to admit there is a problem and admit where we may be a part of the problem, then all change for the better.

“We should air our differences with respect.

“Unfortunately the trend has been for the public to be bombarded with negative attitudes and innuendoes about opposing councillors.

“My ward residents have been told that I’m lazy, untruthful, uncaring and incapable of independent thought.

“On one occasion I was called Tory scum.”

Cllr Dennis King
Cllr Dennis King

Cllr King said: “When I observe or take part in discussions on Facebook, my personal experience is that most of these discussions end up being acrimonious and full of spite. Then comes the name-calling.”

Cllr Mike Taylor (Ind Alliance) had his own solution for dealing with online abuse. He said: “I’ve been vilified in (my ward of) Borough Green on social media for a long time.

“I don’t use social media at all now. They are probably still saying it, but it doesn’t hurt me anymore.”

Cllr James Clokey (Lib Dem) said: “I’ve seen some very sharp comments on social media, particularly recently. There have been comments directed unfairly at the Conservative benches.

“There’s a difference between disagreeing and name-calling and sending abuse.”

Cllr Matt Boughton: I receive more abuse than anyone
Cllr Matt Boughton: I receive more abuse than anyone

The leader of the council, Cllr Matt Boughton (Con) said: “I probably have received more abuse than anyone. I accept that is because of my role as leader.

“I have a thick skin, but when it goes too far, I report it to the police.“

Cllr Boughton suggested that councillors, as role models in society, had a responsibility to set an example.

He said: “How we conduct ourselves in the chamber and outside the chamber in person with residents, on social media, in written communications with our residents, all matter.

Cllr Sarah Hudson (Con) agreed. She said: “I for one would appreciate a little less of the key-board warriors and a little more of face-to-face debate.”

A typical Facebook post
A typical Facebook post

Cllr Cope said: “It’s really great that everyone agrees that we could do with a reset and a change.

“One thing we all share. We are all here because we want local democracy to flourish.”

She presented a motion that was passed by general affirmation.

It included a number of measures such as the council signing up to the Local Government Association’s Debate Not Hate campaign, writing to the government asking it to develop a plan to address the abuse and intimidation of politicians, and working with the police to ensure there was a clear mechanism for reporting concerns about the safety of councillors or their families.

After the meeting, Cllr Cope said: “It is important that we deal with this issue.

“I teach in a girls’ school and I know that many of my students would be put off entering public life when they see the level of toxicity.

“But if our democracy is to thrive, we need participation by people from all walks of life.”

The Local Government Association in a census of its members found that seven out of 10 councillors had experienced abuse or intimidation within the past 12 months.

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