How could we let our politics get this toxic?

Yesterday a dedicated public servant, a humanitarian, and a mother of two was brutally murdered on the streets of her constituency. Jo Cox was a rising star in Westminster, and in the Labour party, who had dedicated her life to the public good. 

During her short Westminster career, Jo Cox proved she wasn’t a normal backbench MP. Usually backbenchers pick a side and stick to it from the moment they turn up in parliament; the majority of MPs will rigidly follow their factional line, where Jo would not. In parliament she was a keen supporter of Labour Friends of Palestine- calling for the end to the Gaza blockade- and argued against banning the BDS movement. She was also one of the most vocal supporters of British military intervention in Syria (though not the specific plan proposed by the government), and was one of the founding members of Labour’s pro-Europe campaign. She nominated Jeremy Corbyn for the Labour leadership, but voted for Liz Kendall.

She was a humanitarian with her own mind. She was brave enough to say and do as she thought right, no matter if people agreed with her, and that’s a rare and valuable commodity in politics. Truly principled people don’t argue against everything someone they dislike says, or agree with everything their friends or supporters say. Parliament needs people like her, and her death is a devastating loss.

Thus far we know that her attacker, Thomas Mair, is in custody. We know he was a member of a far right group. We know that he was a founding member of a pro-apartheid magazine. We know that he had bought books on how to make a homemade gun from an American neo-Nazi publisher. We know that he’s being charged under anti-terror legislation. We know that he suffered from mental health problems. We suspect he shouted ‘Britain First’ as he killed her, or as he was arrested, or both.

People will draw their own conclusions, I’m sure. Some have already said ‘he was mentally ill, and that’s why he murdered her’, but thankfully there aren’t many that think an illness is an all-encompassing excuse for terrorism, or that people with an illness are automatically dangerous murderers. Others will immediately blame the Leave campaign, as it seems Mair supported Brexit, without noticing the immense sorrow of those on the other side of the divide who wholeheartedly believe in democracy and peace.

All we can say now is that the toxic atmosphere of the referendum campaign has made our politics worse, and made those engaged in it less safe. Constant talk of an ‘invasion’, of a Remain vote leading to civil unrest, of political opponents being ‘traitors’, and of Britain reaching ‘breaking point’ has made politics worse. Those vulnerable to radicalisation have been thrust into the perfect environment to be radicalised, and that does have something to do with the leave campaign. But the Leave campaign didn’t radicalise him. I’m sure we’ll get the other answers we crave, but we have few now.

After a constituency MP was brutally stabbed and then shot with what seems like no warning or protection, we’re naturally left asking how we can make sure this never happens again.

For some time, we’ve dismissed the abuse and threats MPs get as being ‘part of the job’. We watched MPs, as well as councillors and others in the public eye, receive an incredible amount of abuse and threats in person, via post, via email, and via social media and we did nothing. 38% of MPs have been stalked, half of them for more than a year, 41% have received specific threats to harm them, and one in five have been subject to attacks or attempted attacks. Young women MPs are a particular target for this abuse, with rape threats now commonplace, though that doesn’t mean male- especially gay male- MPs don’t face horrific targeted abuse.

Most MPs will always hold public surgeries with little to no protection, and all MPs have to face incredible exposure to risk while canvassing. They will always face these risks as their jobs will always require them to talk to their constituents. The thing is, the longer we accept that people abusing or threatening MPs that they disagree with is ok, the harder it is to protect MPs from dangerous extremists. In fact it’s harder to protect society from terrorists of any kind if we just accept and ignore blind hatred as normal and do nothing about it.

Jo Cox’s murder has made us all stop and think. We’re all shocked someone so bright could be taken away so suddenly. Many are now wondering why someone would murder such a dedicated, hardworking, and exceptional person. We should also stop and reflect on the toxic political conditions that have we have watched develop which have allowed radicalisation and hatred to spread so quickly.