Reflections on the state of our public life

This week’s article is dedicated to the memory of Conservative MP Sir David Amess, who was murdered yesterday whilst serving the people he represented in the constituency of Southend West.  

It was 11 years ago, but I still remember the shock I felt when I heard that my friend Stephen Timms, MP for East Ham, had been stabbed whilst holding a constituency surgery in the local library. Stephen was one of the very first people who suggested to me that I “might like to think about getting involved in politics”. Mercifully, the medics who attended to his injuries were able to save his life and to this day he continues to serve his community as passionately as ever. An Al-Qaeda sympathiser was convicted of attempted murder.

It was 5 years ago, but I still remember the shock I felt when I heard that Jo Cox, MP for Batley and Spen, had been shot and then stabbed, walking in to her constituency surgery in the local library. I didn’t know Jo, but I had been really inspired by her maiden speech in the House of Commons just two weeks before. I’d felt that she’d been really brave in calling out a growing polarisation in our society. I also felt that she’d hit the nail right on the head when she said we “have far more in common with each other than the things that divide us”. Sadly Jo’s injuries were so horrific that her life could not be saved. A neo-Nazi sympathiser was convicted of her murder.

It was only yesterday, and I was no less shocked to hear that Sir David Amess, MP for Southend West, had been stabbed whilst holding a constituency surgery at the local Methodist Church in Leigh-on-Sea. Emergency paramedics attended to him but weren’t able to save his life. A husband taken from his wife. A father taken from his children. A public servant taken from his community. My immediate thought was “Oh my God, not again.” Scrolling through the news reports I saw that Counter Terrorism Police had taken charge of the operation. This morning the emerging consensus appears to be that Sir David was indeed deliberately targeted by an extremist.

This is an awful pattern of events. I find myself asking, “What on earth is going on?” My thoughts on this are still swirling but here are a few of the threads…

Six years ago, I first put on a red rosette and went out to ask people to vote for me. It was the 2015 General Election and it was a practice run really, as I’d been selected to stand for Labour in a seat in Surrey that had a massive Conservative majority. On my first campaigning foray I left the house feeling really proud. I was quickly cut down to size when I knocked on a door to be greeted by a man who looked me up and down and said, with a tone of disgust, “You’re all the same you lot, you’ve all got your snouts in the trough!” He promptly slammed the door and I was left with my head spinning. There was so much I wanted to say in reply. I wanted to tell him my story, to help him understand why I was involved in politics. I wanted to tell him that as a candidate I had to fund my own campaign. I also wanted to find out more about him too, about what might be making him so angry.

I didn’t get the chance to do any of that. I actually found it quite difficult to deal with at the time. I’d never been objectified like that before. I’d naively expected that people would give me a fair hearing. I hadn’t realised the way that a rosette, of whatever colour, suddenly turns you a representative of a strange category, a politician.  

The sad thing is, you get used to it. Every weekend I’m out knocking doors and talking to residents and it will be an unusual week when there isn’t at least one who is instantly triggered by having a political representative on their doorstep. Nowadays, when this happens, I think of those for whom abuse is a daily reality. Because, for me, as a local politician, people are in the main quite polite and chatty. But I know that NHS workers, Police, shop workers, bar staff, traffic wardens… all sorts of people in public-facing roles, are shouted and sworn at, spat upon, and even violently assaulted, just for doing their jobs.

Both are rising year-on-year. Lots of other indicators from other sources back this up too. My sense is that public disputes can quickly escalate into violent confrontations. I also feel that this pathway to violence is much more likely to happen when people lose the ability to see one another as fellow human beings. When people go to work as a GP receptionist, as a bus driver, as a football coach, they don’t cease to be a human being. They don’t deserve to be treated with anything less than respect.

And so, circling back round to where I began, we have the problem of extremist ideologies, like Islamic Jihadism and Neo-Nazism. There’s a reason why we call them extremists, because they represent the far end of a spectrum. That spectrum however includes every single one of us. We each have a responsibility to reflect from time to time on our own attitudes towards others. How often are we guilty of treating other people as less than human? This is certainly a relevant question in the field of politics, which can be very tribal, and has a bad habit of ‘othering’ opponents, especially on social media.

What I’m taking away from this tragic event is a renewed conviction that my first task in politics is to be working for a broad vision of a vibrant community that each contributes to and all can benefit from. But this better society, that many of us dream of, will remain just that, a dream, unless we can deliver on the daily task of job of simply getting along together.

By way of a final word, I’ll turn to the book I’m reading at the moment whilst feels very relevant today: Morality, released by former Chief Rabbi Jonathan Sacks shortly before his death in 2020…

Recovering liberal democratic freedom will involve emphasising responsibilities as well as rights, shared rules, not just individual choices, caring for others as well as for ourselves, and making space not just for self-interest but also for the common good.

Jonathan Sacks, Morality: Restoring the Common Good in Divided Times

Rabbi Sacks called this moving from the politics of ‘Me’ to the politics of ‘We’. I’m quite sure that Sir David, a devoutly Catholic man, would have instinctively understood this.

May he rest in peace.

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