he shocking extent of abuse suffered by female councillors in London can be revealed today in a devastating investigation by the Evening Standard, as 60 per cent of those surveyed said they have been victims of misogyny.
One councillor reported how a member of her constituency had warned her: “I will rape you and your daughter.” Another told us: “There were magazines circulated with my head cut off and rap songs posted through my door about how l should be raped. It has put me off standing for Parliament.” A third said: “I’ve always struggled speaking about this publicly, I didn’t want to put other women off politics.”
Their testimony comes as council leaders are demanding better protection in the wake of a “tide of abuse” against councillors and calling for “a greater willingness to prosecute those who make threats”. It is also despite London Councils, the cross-party representative group for local government, acknowledging the “rising tide” of “particularly vile, misogynistic abuse” female councillors face.
Earlier this month, the Standard surveyed 58 female and 22 male councillors about their experiences of witnessing or being victims of gender-based abuse and found that 45 per cent of male councillors have witnessed abuse towards female colleagues which “wouldn’t happen to them”. While the men said they had experienced some kind of abuse themselves, they said it was usually much less than their female counterparts.
Seventy per cent of the female councillors said they would feel safer if their address was no longer public, branding its current availability “outrageous” and directly contributing to the abuse they face. The home address of councillors is often available online on their register of interests. While there is the chance for councillors to opt-out of having their home address publicly available, one said she “had to fight” to get it removed and another described it as a “hard, difficult process”.
Across boroughs, parties, ages and ethnicities, women councillors have told the Standard of abuse based almost entirely on their gender, including enduring comments made about their “childbearing hips”, being sent hand-written cards stating, “you’ll always have a seat on my face” and being asked for nudes while dealing with casework.
Councillor casework involves working with domestic abuse, debt crises and sheltered housing issues.
The relationships built with constituents is a vital part of being a councillor but women have told the Standard that an increasingly hostile culture of misogyny and abuse has left them feeling vulnerable.
We spoke to four councillors who told us about the gender-based verbal threats, online harassment and physical intimidation they faced.
“I’ve received death threats, rape threats and beheading threats. I’ve been called Taliban, told to go back to where I come from and been threatened with physical assault.”
There was a time when fear led Ms Assad to constantly check her exit options when she entered a room for a public meeting. Every half hour for the past three weeks she had received phone calls on her private number where the caller said, “I know where you live” and told her to “watch her back”. She immediately asked for her address to be removed from the council website.
“I thought I was being followed, I became completely paranoid,” she said. Both Ms Assad and another councillor, who wished to remain anonymous, were on the receiving end of relentless threatening contact. One week, the latter received upwards of 200 emails from the same man.
Yet both women said they had to wait for their council leaders to either experience such obsessive behaviour themselves or speak up on their behalf before the police intervened. “Originally, I wasn’t taken seriously by the police. Only when the leader of my council and MP — both men in positions of power — said their response was inadequate was I given a police escort to surgeries,” she said.
Ms Assad’s ethnicity features heavily in the abuse she receives: “Being the first Afghan elected to public office seems to garner a lot of hate in the hearts of some men. One told me he hoped that I’d get raped and beheaded by a member of the Taliban.”
A male councillor from Croydon noted that “abuse can be harsher towards women and Bame [black and minority ethnic] councillors”.
Childs Hill, Barnet, Labour
“He called me at 2am talking about his penis and sent me pictures of myself grocery shopping. At one point, I was getting 40 phone calls a day from a private number, with heavy breathing in the background.”
At Ms Clarke’s first councillor surgery in 2018, a man asked for her help as he had been rehoused from another borough and wasn’t happy with the new accommodation — a common request to councillors. Three surgeries later, he began sending inappropriate messages to her, punctuating them with the word f*** and saying he wanted to “tie her up”.
At this point she sought help from the police, who immediately acted on her concerns and told her the man was a sexual predator, recently released from prison after being sentenced for aggravated rape. He was later convicted. Despite communicating with her about his casework, Ms Clarke said the council had failed to make her aware of his criminal status.
“Even if my female colleagues haven’t had stalkers, they’ve experienced misogyny and sexism. But people
don’t know how widespread this is because we don’t want women to be put off,” she said. Councillor Arjun Mittra, Ms Clarke’s male colleague said: “People would not have spoken to Anne’s predecessor [Andrew Dismore] like they speak to her.”
Hampstead Town, Camden, Conservative
“I don’t hear stories from my male colleagues of being frightened while doing their job, whereas safety is constantly on my mind.”
During a surgery, Ms Higson became increasingly wary of an aggressive constituent she was speaking to. Then “he opened his bag — I saw a very, very large knife and I panicked”, she said. Other women have also experienced threats of physical violence — one reported being knocked over, while another said a man almost hit her over an unread Facebook message.
“We are cautious within our three-member ward in Kensington and Chelsea about our female colleague meeting certain constituents,” a male Conservative councillor reported. “There’s been multiple incidences [of intimidation]. My male colleagues have never been taken into someone’s house and then, essentially, not been allowed to leave,” Ms Higson said. She was referring to an incident in which someone locked the door behind her.
“Who do I call? If I call 999, am I going to be given the same priority as an MP?”
Ms Higson is not the only councillor to have been physically barred from leaving constituents’ houses while door-knocking. Some have even been subjected to aggression behind closed doors. In 2014, Ms Tatler was on a man’s doorstep campaigning. “He closed the door behind me and started shouting and swearing at me. I said to him, ‘You need to let me out… you need to let me out of the house’.”
Another time Ms Tatler and a female colleague were collecting signatures for a petition when “these young student lads, who had been drinking, grabbed our clipboard, closed the door and told us we couldn’t leave”.
Such intimidation from groups of men can also occur on the councillors’ own doorsteps.
Ms Tatler told us about male residents who knocked on her colleague’s door on two separate occasions, angry about a decision made by the council, pushing the colleague to ask for her address to be removed.
“I have had to move from my home after a man became obsessed with me — he kept turning up and sitting in my garden,” one councillor told us.