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Standing for election shouldn't mean living in fear

Threats and abuse are all too familiar for politicians

For two years I had a stalker who rang me to make increasingly gruesome death threats. I was targeted because I was a councillor. According to my stalker, the Labour party was institutionally racist, and as a councillor elected to represent that party, I should be punished for my acquiescence.

My stalker also made a clear death threat to the local MP, which I reported to the police. After they were questioned, they targeted me. I was told in quite some detail how I was to be murdered, which would happen at one of my surgeries for local residents.

I had to stop holding my surgeries behind closed doors in the local library, and instead sat in the foyer. I felt so embarrassed and nervous by the situation I kept it under wraps, after all aren’t politicians supposed to be thick-skinned?

Threats against me and my colleagues were commonplace. Often it was low level. After one particularly heated planning meeting, where my vote supported the construction of a fairly tall tower in a low-rise area, I found myself surrounded by angry local residents. “People like you make me sick”, “You’re only in it for yourself”, “How much do you get paid?”

I was constantly accused on the doorstep of being corrupt; other people would swear at me. I lost count how many times I was called a cunt.

Fair play you may say. Politicians should put up with abuse if they want to remain in public life. Yet the demonisation of politicians has led to a culture of hatred. Every time I speak to MPs they feel under siege. Look at the threats levelled online at female politicians.

Many men experience similar abuse, but in our macho political culture I imagine they hold back from speaking out, or face looking “weak”. I know two politicians who have suffered serious abuse, with repurcussiond for their mental health.

We have a democracy where many in the electorate despise those they elect. As we demonise our politicians, we are eroding faith in democracy and in our democratic parties. We are truly on the road to a demagogic age.

I confess I have to take my share of the blame. I’ve laughed when friends have quoted Bevan’s “lower than vermin” line about the Tories (a truly despicable quote from a hero of mine), I’ve been personal and ad hominem about the SNP and their supporters and I’ve questioned the motives of illiberal politicians.

Social media incentivises vitriol at the expense of consideration. We retweet and “like” utterly false claims about politicians we dislike in public displays of affectation. We all lower the tone and debase complicated issues to sound bites.

Everyone – from major charities to public institutions to journalists – is reducing complexity to simplicity. All the while toxic public anger is bubbling to the surface and politicians have acted as a public punch bag for our frustrations.

The murder of Jo Cox is an abject tragedy. As an individual, she was everything you would want to see in a politician: fiercely independent, furiously intelligent and hard working.

Her two young children will never again see their mother.

Her murderer waited for her outside her surgery where she was trying to help people in her community. It seems that because she decided to stand for public office, her murderer felt she was fair game. This is where we are today. This is where the endless drip of poison about our political class has led us – we’re now a country where standing for election can cost your life.

Mike is the publisher of Little Atoms and the Director of 89up. He has run high profile campaigns on Belarus and Azerbaijan, works with the Don't Spy On Us campaign and documentary film company BRITDOC on the Oscar-nominated film CITIZENFOUR. He has written for The Independent, The Guardian, The Daily Telegraph, The Times and Index on Censorship.