Sir David Amess’s killing: Why MPs’ safety is important

The regular threats to public officials are an attack on democracy.

A candle and a portrait of British MP David Amess
A candle and a portrait of British MP David Amess, who was stabbed to death during a meeting with constituents, are seen at the church of St Michael's and all Angels, in Leigh-on-Sea, UK, October 17, 2021 [File: Chris Radburn/Reuters]

On October 15, 2021, Sir David Amess, the long-serving British Conservative member of parliament for Southend West in Essex, was killed in a knife attack while holding a constituency surgery at a local church.

The police have since declared it a terrorist attack, arrested the suspect and are investigating the cause. As the United Kingdom begins to come to terms with his murder, there are concerns whether MPs are sufficiently protected to do their jobs, and why these attacks continue to take place.

The last such attack took place in 2016 when Jo Cox, MP for Batley and Spen, was murdered by a far-right activist. And in 2010, MP Stephen Timms survived an assassination attempt, suffering two stab wounds in the abdomen by a woman claiming to have been radicalised by al-Qaeda.

Parliamentarians have for years been a target for people’s grievances.

At one level that is unsurprising, as they are elected representatives of their local communities, and are visible leaders who debate and vote on a whole range of national policies. Members of the public regularly lobby or advocate on those specific policies, and parliamentarians engage with them as part of their job.

The irony is that both Sir David and Jo Cox were doing exactly that when they were murdered. In both instances, the two politicians were meeting the local people to try and help address their concerns.

It is clear something has gone wrong.

Erosion of trust

Parliamentarians regularly get abuses, hate mails and death threats, but murder is the absolute worst-case scenario and the cause for the animosity against elected officials is complex and multilayered. They have to grapple with potentially unpopular policies, including their stance on foreign wars, and if not directly, then through association with their wider political party.

The erosion of trust with the political class is likely driven by a multitude of factors. Some may be imagined from a conspiracy theory on a niche forum, others may have been driven by events such as the economic crisis in 2008, the expenses scandal in 2009 when parliamentarians were outed for misuse of public funds, the divisive nature of Brexit or the pent-up frustration of the COVID-19 pandemic lockdowns. All these, combined with a confrontational traditional media landscape and the social media echo chambers, can create the impression that parliamentarians are liars, do not listen to those they represent, are lazy and self-serving.

This is, however, an unfair and uninformed characterisation of people’s elected representatives.

The reality is that most parliamentarians work incredibly hard on issues on the ground with their local communities, hosting constituency surgeries in the form of face-to-face meetings at car parks, supermarkets, community centres and yes, local churches.

Parliamentarians also often have to work in several different locations dealing with time pressures, focusing on complex policy issues in parliament, where sittings and committees can go on late at night during the week. And then on Friday, they have to head back to their constituencies, some commuting to the other side of the country each week to deal with local cases and attend community events on weekends. They often have a small team to help and have limited personal protection when outside of parliament.

It is noble work, and most parliamentarians do not go through all the sacrifices and pressures for the financial rewards (most would frankly earn far more in the private sector), but rather because they care about their people and their country.

An attack on democracy

This problem affects more than just the MPs, their overworked and often under-recognised staff have even less protection than the elected officials. And the risk is also there for regional and local governments, including the thousands of councillors and local officials who engage closely with the public.

In June, Conservative Councillor Graeme Campbell, representing South Lanarkshire near Glasgow, had his house set on fire. New rules are now in place to keep councillor addresses private to ensure their safety.

These regular threats to public officials are an attack on democracy.

As a former parliamentary candidate myself, I was struck by the sheer viciousness of online and in-person hate from strangers. While politicians need to be thick-skinned, it can put off well-meaning and talented people from entering politics. It also risks making our political system more remote if politicians cannot meet constituents organically in engagements due to security protocols, replaced instead with security screening and prebooking.

UK Home Secretary Priti Patel has now ordered an immediate security review of all parliamentarians. This will likely result in more police protection for elected officials during public engagements. How the government tackles the deeper challenge of national security concerns, such as online radicalisation and extremism, and the practical measures to fend off seemingly random and lone-wolf attacks, will take longer.

It will never be possible to completely remove the risks involved in the work of an MP. While some parliamentarians have advocated stopping all face-to-face interactions till the review is completed, most, including several ministers remain reluctant to place barriers between politicians and the public.

The objective of a functioning democracy is to be out there with the people, but MPs and their staff deserve to be able to do this safely and without fear. There will be no easy solutions, but the least we can do is be grateful for the hard work our parliamentarians do for the benefit of their communities.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial stance.