Why the other parties should stand
Deflecting ourselves from our own traditions is exactly what terrorists want
Seeing the Prime Minister and the Leader of Her Majesty’s opposition walking up to the small Baptist church in Leigh in Sea, each carrying a bouquet of flowers and each suitably sombre, was a brief reminder that there are moments when partisan politics can and should give way. We cannot know what the two of them talked about, but the likelihood is that they shared concern for the family of the slaughtered Sir David Amess, and they probably exchanged a couple of anecdotes about the former MP. One thing that has become clear is that he was extraordinarily well liked, not in a superficial way, but due to his actions over his thirty-five year career. Pretty much everybody has a story to tell, and they are about Sir David’s service, his beliefs, his treatment of those deemed his social inferiors, his sheer hard work and commitment to his constituents and his constituency.
One other thing that may well have come up, is the brute fact of the upcoming by-election. Sir David will have his shield in Parliament, but the job of representation of the people of Southend must continue. When we die, the waters close very fast in order that life continue, as it must.
The decision of the Labour Party, swiftly followed by the Liberal Democrats, the Greens and Reform UK not to run in the forthcoming by-election, though in certain ways understandable, is wrong in principle. If we are to take at face value the statements made across politics that we will never allow extremists to win, or change us, then why do we do precisely that?
Terrorism is about changing society itself
In 1990, after the assassination of the Conservative MP Ian Gow, only seven years after the Brighton bomb, all parties contested the Eastbourne by-election. To the surprise of many surprise (not least Mrs Thatcher, for whose premiership the by-election turned out to be a tolling bell), the Liberal Democrats won the seat. There was no thought that opposition parties would stand aside. Though at the time Anne Widdecombe voiced harsh criticism (“Bellotti [the Lib Dem winner of that by-election] is the innocent beneficiary of murder. I suspect that last night as the Liberal Democrats were toasting their success, in its hideouts the IRA were doing the same thing”), hers was an individual and rare voice.
The new precedent was set after the murder of Jo Cox just before the referendum in 2016, when the Tories, Lib Dems and UKIP declined to campaign. But just because a precedent has been set (and in very different circumstances) does not mean that it should be followed.
Cox’s murderer Thomas Mair was receiving treatment for mental illness, though his immersion in the nether world of hard right, Nazi and white supremacist ideology was clearly his motivation. With Rashana Chaoudray, who attempted to kill Labour MP Stephen Timms, it was a clear and proud Islamist position that drove her.
As we learn more, it seems that this awful case is the same.
Does anybody seriously believe that either of these extremisms are about changing who the representative is in any given constituency? No, but terrorism is about changing society itself. Those who argue that to contest this by-election would be to give in to terrorists have it the wrong way round. Deflecting ourselves from our own traditions, and scurrying around in fear, is exactly what they want.
It may be acceptable for this government to talk about providing police protection for MPs at their surgeries, given they only take up a few hours a month in most cases. It may help in certain cases, but I doubt it would help in cases like Stephen Timms, Ian Gow or Jo Cox. Somebody who is determined to kill or maim, with no thought for their own safety, will sometimes be able to get through. The suggestion, mooted by Tobias Elwood, to turn MPs surgeries into carbon copies of Covid GPs surgeries is just wrong. Hiding behind a digital screen would be an appalling option and deeply damaging to our political way of life.
I cannot believe that Sir David Amess would approve
Our politicians keep going on about building resilience. Their actions are the opposite of that: not holding a contested election shows a deep lack of resilience. Better still for opposition parties, they can show their “honour” and “decency” very cheaply. No-one bar the Tories would get a look in in Southend West. So this virtue signalling is a cheap win. When Labour made its call, they could shower themselves in virtue and save a pretty packet, as could the Lib Dems. When those two had made the call, then other smaller parties like the Greens, and my own, Reform, could hardly stand themselves, as by then the moral high ground was laid out clearly — and they too will save a packet.
At the Batley and Spen by-election after the murder of Jo Cox, the turnout was 25 per cent — one of the lowest of all time. At the by-election in the same constituency this year the turnout was 47 per cent, so I don’t think that the electorate didn’t want to vote; it was just that they were left with Labour, or a bunch of ne’er do well parties. The emergence of the Heavy Woolen Party in the 2019 general election shows the contempt that the local population had for the opposition parties who had failed them in 2016.
Party headquarters have not made these decisions in consultation with the people of Southend West. There just hasn’t been the time. But they suit the “be kind” political generation.
Sunder Katwala of the think tank British Future has suggested, in response to the capitulation of the centre, either a multi-faith led campaign to up the turnout or that an essentially mainstream “joke candidate” should run, in order to blunt the appeal of extremists.
The BNP et al. will no doubt stand to try and capitalise on the situation as they did in Batley and Spen. It is quite something that a sober and sane commentator on British politics can even suggest such a thing. This “something” is the dereliction of duty on the part of our main parties. I can believe that if they had said “business as usual”, then there would have been strident whimpering across the commentariat. There would be claims of disrespect, but the people of this land (and Essex in particular) are made of sterner stuff, as was Sir David, no matter his near universal bonhomie.
I cannot believe that he would approve. If he was anything, he was a staunch defender of the interests and rights of the people of his adoptive town (soon to be city thanks to his lifelong campaign). How can it possibly be in their interests to have an appointee as their representative? How does this show we are defending democracy and believe in it? How?
The only people who gain are those at Conservative Central office whose decision it will be to appoint (or heavily suggest to the local Conservative association) who should be the next MP for life. Will what used to be called “Guiness-on-Sea” be called “Carrie-on-Sea” in the future?
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