After the horrific and senseless killing of David Amess on Friday, huge amounts of pain came to the surface in our family. The parallels are obvious and it has hit us all very hard. With Kim Leadbeater (Jo’s sister) now in parliament, it’s not just pain that the killing rekindles from the past, but real fear for the present as well.
This is felt by almost all MPs, almost all of their staff and every one of their families. This weekend there will have been hundreds of conversations asking the same question: is it worth it?
But what really makes many wonder is not just the horrific killings but the day-to-day brutality with which our political debate is conducted, from increasingly regular death threats to online abuse. The police investigation team convened after Jo’s murder found, between 2016 and 2020, 582 reports of malicious communications and handled 46 cases of harassment. Nine cases were classified as terrorism-related.
David and Jo would have disagreed on much, but one thing they shared was a deep and abiding commitment to our democratic system. It’s one of the most fundamental things we have in common. Whatever our differences of opinion, most of us share a belief in democracy. A recent report by More in Common – an organisation that I helped set up after Jo’s murder – found that nine in 10 of us still share a principled commitment to our democratic system.
It is that power of democracy to unite us that drives terrorists to want to attack it, and foreign states to want to undermine it.
Yet terrorists and hostile states aren’t the only threat to democracy. In fact, they probably aren’t even the most potent. Polarisation, the dehumanisation of our opponents and less social contact between people with different views and backgrounds undermine democracy even more. More in Common found that in around one-third of us our commitment to democracy was thin, with 36% willing to support a “strong leader who breaks the rules”.
So, in the aftermath of David’s killing, we should all be asking ourselves: what we can do to strengthen our democratic system?
There are specific answers to this, from better security to targeted work to combat the extremism that leads to terrorism. But those often feel like solutions for other people to implement. We may not be able to stop extremists from committing horrific acts, but can we strengthen our democratic culture in other ways? I think the answer to this is yes. And not only that, I think those of us on the left have a particular responsibility.
The first thing we can do is to try to see our opponent’s arguments in their best light. It’s easy now, especially with social media, to pick on a particularly objectionable person making a particularly ridiculous argument for a policy we disagree with and then seek to present that as the case we are up against. But it’s also lazy and reductive. The rightwing media often does this: find some obscure college campus implementing some weird “woke” policy and use it to drive outrage and ridicule. But it’s not just Fox News that behaves like this: parts of the left routinely engage in the same tactics, and it drives us further apart.
Second, we should stop dehumanising and assuming the worst of our opponents. Most of us will think Boris Johnson is the wrong choice for prime minister. But is he really a fascist? Is he actually human scum? Are all Brexit voters racist? We should all challenge people on our own side who dehumanise those we disagree with. It creates an environment that, even if inadvertently, is conducive to violence.
Third: do you actually know any Tories? Given a significant proportion of the country will at some stage have voted for the Conservative party, you have a real problem if you’ve never had a proper chat with any of its supporters. Not having any friends who are conservative doesn’t make you principled; it simply means you’re disconnected. Politics should be the art of persuasion and, for that, we have to know and engage with each other first.
None of this will stop attacks like the one on Friday. But they are things that we on the left can do to help build a stronger democratic culture. This isn’t about compromising or selling out, it’s about decency, tolerance and holding on tight to what we have in common.