Councillor Steve Charmley stepped down as deputy leader of Shropshire Council last month and has told of the role a barrage of online abuse played in his decision.
He spoke before the shocking killing of MP Sir David Amess, warning of the constant pressures and dangers faced by all politicians.
The Whittington Conservative revealed he had himself received a death threat and had been visited by police. He had spent more than 10 years at the top-table of the council and was the cabinet member in charge of highways, leading some of the county’s biggest projects.
He quit last month and has spoken of the role that a constant drip-feed of social media abuse played in his decision.
He said: “Everyone reads it. The family read it, it does disrupt your social life. I got to the stage where I didn’t want to go to the pub because someone would mention something they have seen on social media and start asking you about it.
“They suggest you’re a crook or taking backhanders and it gets you down eventually. The idea that I am taking backhanders is ridiculous. I have better things to do with my life than get abuse like that.
“There just does not seem to be any control of social media – people can say what they want and there is nothing you can do.”
The issue is one that has been highlighted by the Local Government Association – which represents councils. The organisation launched its own evidence gathering mission after warning that there were “growing concerns about the impact an increasing level of public intimidation and toxicity of debate is having on our country’s democratic processes”.
Posts from Shropshire Council’s official Facebook and Twitter accounts have been met with abusive responses, as well as media stories featuring comments from Councillor Charmley. Even his resignation led to a series of abusive comments, some suggesting to expect a visit from the police, while others accused him of taking bribes. Shropshire Council has also spoken out on the issue, saying it will support any councillor who find themselves the target of abuse.
Councillor Charmley also revealed he had been the subject of a death threat, with police visiting his home on a Friday night to warn him a man had contacted the council and threatened to shoot him.
The former cabinet member said there had been a change in people’s online behaviour where it is no longer enough to disagree on politics, and instead people question whether there are malign motives behind decisions.
He said: “I think there is a lack of understanding of the role of councillors. I did it because I wanted to help where I live, I wanted to make Shropshire a better place. Everyone who stands for election does it for the right reasons, they want to improve the community, they are doing it to represent that community.
“People have the right to disagree, whether it is the North West Relief Road, shopping centres, whatever it is on the agenda at the moment. You might not agree with the approach or the direction of travel but you have to do your research to understand why that decision was taken.
“There is an element of politics in it. You have Conservatives and Greens and Lib Dems, you will always have disagreements politically but people saying things at the moment – people say ‘why is he promoting the North West Relief Road, maybe he’s getting paid off by contractors’. I really have no idea what goes through people’s heads.”