The killing of Sir David Amess MP has been shattering. It is a tragedy for his family, and has caused deep sadness in his constituency of Southend West.
But it is also frightening for many MPs – because Sir David was not doing anything out of the ordinary when he was killed. He was just doing what very many MPs do regularly: meeting with his constituents face to face in an advice session. However, MPs don’t just offer advice; we try and help with problems, intercede with the council on our constituents’ behalf, or just give them the opportunity to meet with their MP personally and lobby us.
In the days since the tragic death of Sir David there has been a big debate about keeping MPs safe. I have some personal experience of the fear many MPs feel. I get ten times more abuse online than any other MP, and some of it contains death threats. So, I feel strongly that online platforms like Facebook and Twitter can do a great deal more about abusive content.
There is the general abuse. But this is accompanied by incitement to racial hatred, incitement to hatred of women, and threats of violence. To limit this abusive content, social media companies need to put a stop to end-to-end secrecy on their platforms. People could continue to post anonymously. But the platform should always hold their name and address.
When I have been the victim of racialised and threatening attacks online and reported them to the police, often they have been unable to investigate because of the current rules on anonymity. Persons inciting violence and racial hatred online should know that they will no longer have this cover.
Another issue is the anger generated by particular issues. I first noticed this venomously anti-politician mood in response to the MPs’ expenses scandal in 2009. But Brexit has excited the same poisonous anger – and worse.
One suggestion in response to the current crisis of concern about MPs’ safety is that the police should offer MPs more protection. It is said that this is something that you see more of on the continent. There may indeed be a case for allowing MPs to borrow metal detectors or wands for use at their advice sessions. But I would be very reluctant to have a police officer outside my own constituency sessions.
A number of MPs, of whom I am one, don’t think that bringing the police into contact with people who approach MPs for help is a good idea. For example, there are those who are the victims of unjust state actions, some of whom have adopted life strategies that allow them to avoid officialdom. I know an MP colleague in north London who, for a specific reason, had police officers present outside her surgeries. As a result, the numbers attending went down.
I would hate to do anything that deterred my constituents from coming to see me. For the type of person who does not follow politics in the broadsheet newspapers, or attend public meetings, meeting their MP in person at an advice session is one of the few things that makes politics real to them.
Instead of a police guard, I think that parliament should work with the venues where MPs have their advice sessions, including funding physical methods to make MPs safer – like Perspex screens. Going forward, politicians ourselves have a role to play in taking some of the anger out of politics – including in our interactions with each other. We should try not to reflect the anger in public discourse in any of what we say, and in debate we should be attacking the policies, not the person.
It is vital that we deal with this issue of MPs’ safety. People should remember that is not just individual MPs who are at risk, but also their staff. Nobody should be threatened with violence just for doing their job.
The increasing anger and threats of violence are causing some MPs to consider stepping down from parliament, and are deterring some people from going into politics at all.
However, if social media companies step up to their responsibilities, and parliament works constructively with other bodies – including making money available for specific initiatives – and if we all contribute to taking the anger and venom out of politics, then things can change. With such action I believe that we can begin to turn the tide of verbal and physical violence in politics, and see no more tragedies like the killing of Sir David Amess.
Diane Abbott is the Labour MP for Hackney North and Stoke Newington