The tragic death of Sir David Amess felt very close to home for my community. On 30 March 1979, Airey Neave, the MP for Abingdon, the precursor seat to my own, was mortally wounded by an Irish National Liberation Army car bomb as he drove out of the car park in parliament.
He wasn’t the first, and he wasn’t the last. MPs continue to be killed for their beliefs, their views or simply for doing their jobs. Just five years after Jo Cox was murdered, we find ourselves asking “how did this happen again?”
I must admit, it took me a couple of days to process what had happened. I reflected on the danger that elected officials and their staff are in, day in and day out. I’ve experienced threatening behaviour myself, including during the last general election. I ask myself: is it worth it? The thought is fleeting because the answer is always a resounding “yes”. But to not acknowledge the danger is foolhardy, because it does exist.
The outpouring of grief from Sir David’s family, friends, constituents and colleagues is a testament to his years of faithful service. His appalling death reminds us that all MPs, by virtue of their positions, are targets for those who wish to harm our democracy, regardless of where they are in the country.
The fabric of democracy – its people, its front line – can feel so fragile in these moments. But it is now down to us to keep that fabric strong, and it is for that reason that I would argue that stopping MPs from connecting face to face with constituents is exactly the wrong thing to do. Ultimately, this will be a deeply personal issue for each MP, depending on their constituency and the threats they and their staff may face.
But for MPs to be forced to retreat from their communities, to stop seeing people face to face or to be required to have permanent guards would risk undermining our democracy when we need it more than ever. In Jo Cox’s immortal words, if we are to discover that we have more in common, then we need to hear people’s stories, empathise with their circumstances and, where necessary, be their voice.
Clearly MPs need to be doing more when it comes to our safety and security. I would be the first to admit that I’ve sometimes been too relaxed in my approach. I’m working hard with my team and the police, to review our practices and see what we can do differently.
This isn’t just about me and other MPs. It’s about our staff too. In 2000, former Lib Dem MP Nigel Jones’ aide, Andy Pennington, was tragically killed defending his boss when an attacker stormed their constituency office carrying a sword. It’s also about our councillors, and all public officials who do difficult work in an increasingly toxic environment that badly needs fixing.
It sounds like a huge task that one person alone could never solve. That’s why it’s vital that we all work together, as one country, to make things better. We need to create a more tolerant society where people don’t resort to threats, intimidation and violence.
The promised review into MPs’ security is welcome, but we must all appreciate the part we play. If the government is serious about improving MPs’ security, they must look not just at already-stretched police resources, but at how the whole business of politics is conducted in our country, starting at the top.
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When, in the past, words like “traitors” were casually bandied around during the Brexit debates, we all saw the level of threat increase in our inboxes and our social media feeds. MPs were called “mutineers” for how they voted while our judges were described as “enemies of the people”. Former MPs like Paula Sherriff tried to call it out, but to no avail. It’s a problem on all sides; demonising Conservative colleagues for their beliefs only adds to the aggression and toxicity that defines too much of our political discourse.
And don’t get me started on the lack of any meaningful enforcement by social media companies. Every hateful tweet and every unkind word helps to spread a hostile atmosphere towards our politicians and their staff. We all have a responsibility to mind the language we use. This needs to stop. Sticks and stones, you may say, but words have consequences, and sadly the landscape of hatred has endured.
If there is one ray of hope through the dark clouds, it’s that people are again talking to one another about how they want change and how much they cherish our parliamentary democracy. The response to Sir David’s death is to connect more, not less. Only in that connection can we foster the respect we need to get beyond where we are now.
I still believe we can build a kinder, more gentle politics where we respect one another for our differences, even if we do not agree. That’s not going to be easy, and it won’t happen overnight. But the work must begin now.
Layla Moran is the Lib Dem MP for Oxford West and Abingdon