For the second time in five years, a serving member of parliament has been fatally stabbed in their constituency. David Amess, the Conservative MP for Southend West, was attacked as he met constituents at Belfairs Methodist Church.
His death follows that of Jo Cox, the former Labour MP for Batley and Spen, who was shot and stabbed on her way to a constituency surgery in Birstall Library in 2016.
Every day, MPs risk their safety to serve the public. What unites both these tragedies of the past half decade is not only the shock of such sudden daylight violence nor the assault on democracy they represent – but their locations. A street leading down to a local village library in West Yorkshire. A church sandwiched between houses on a residential road on the Essex coast.
There are 650 of these places across the UK. Six hundred and fifty streets, libraries, church halls, cafes and pub backrooms where MPs see their constituents and hear their concerns. Details of the address, date and time of their surgeries are usually pinned to community centre noticeboards, pop up in the pages of local newspapers and are advertised in Facebook posts.
In bold lettering, their local office will often bear their name or party plastered across the doorway. This is how they work, face to face with the public. Walking through any MP’s patch with them is a slow process, so often are they stopped and either thanked, castigated or more usually asked questions about whatever is concerning the passerby that day.
It is the unglamorous, humble, shoe-leather beauty of British democracy. Participation at its potholed, trestle-tabled, strip-lit roots. And, increasingly, it is dangerous.
In 2010, Stephen Timms, the Labour MP for East Ham, survived potentially life-threatening wounds after he was stabbed during a constituency surgery at the Beckton Globe Library in East London. Ten years earlier, Nigel Jones, then Liberal Democrat MP for Cheltenham, was wounded and his aide Andrew Pennington killed during a knife attack at his constituency office.
There is now a “rising tide of threat” against public officials, according to a report by the Joint Committee on Human Rights in October 2019. A number of MPs, particularly women and those of an ethnic minority, have recently opened up about receiving death threats and personal abuse. London mayor Sadiq Khan recently revealed to a New Statesman event at the Labour Party conference that he needs 24/7 police protection.
“Riding a bike to work is different for me than it is for you,” he said. “Going for a jog is different for me than it is for you. Taking the dog for a walk is different for me than it is for you.”
Between 2016 and 2018, spending on security for individual MPs rose from £171,000 to over £4m. Between 2017 and 2019, the number of crimes against MPs reported annually to the Parliamentary Liaison and Investigation Team increased from 111 to 238.
Now, many MPs are “less likely to tweet in advance where they are going”, have “changed the way they do advice surgeries – instead of open surgeries where any constituent can turn up, they are only seeing constituents if they have an appointment”, and constituents see their MP out and about less often, the joint committee report found.
The inflammatory language that characterises our politics – a culture the former House of Commons speaker John Bercow called “toxic” in 2019 – has real-life consequences. A language of “betrayal”, “traitors” and “enemies of the people”. A language of taking “a knife to the pen pushers in Whitehall” and “Hang the Tories”.
Steadfast in the face of this ever-threatening atmosphere, David Amess was doing on Friday 15 October 2021 what he had done almost every Friday since being elected in 1983. What every MP does almost every Friday. If their safety cannot be protected, we will lose the heart of the democracy that they work so hard to serve.