IT was a typical weekday lunchtime in Birstall as shoppers wandered around the stalls on the popular Market Square on the look out for bargains.
Thursday is market day when this quiet, unremarkable West Yorkshire village, a few miles south west of Leeds, bustles with life. It’s the kind of place where people simply get on with their daily business.
But this normality was shattered yesterday when Jo Cox, Labour MP for Batley and Spen, was shot and stabbed on the pavement close to Birstall Library where she was due to hold her weekly advice surgery.
The tragic death of the mother-of-two, who was killed while carrying out her public duty, has left the country in a state of shock. It has also raised serious concerns about the safety and security of our elected politicians.
There have been attacks on MPs before. In 2010, Labour’s East Ham MP Stephen Timms survived after being stabbed during a constituency advice surgery.
Ten years earlier Lord Jones of Cheltenham was seriously injured and his assistant Andrew Pennington killed in a frenzied attack by a constituent, after which Parliamentarians were advised to implement appointment systems for their surgeries.
In January this year, the question of MPs safety was the focus of a study which found that MPs should be given greater protection from the public. More than 230 MPs took part in the survey with 43 saying they had been subject to attack or attempted attacks and 101 claiming they had received threats to harm them. The report also said that abuse had left 36 politicians afraid to go out in public, put marriages under strain and led to some being treated for depression and anxiety.
Timms, who was stabbed twice in the stomach by a woman who tried to murder him for voting for the Iraq war, suggested it would be difficult to ramp up security. Speaking to The Observer he said: “After what happened to me I was offered a knife arch for my surgeries, but I refused because that just makes it more difficult for people to come and see you. It isn’t the MP I want to be.”
However, Jo Cox’s murder has thrust this issue into sharp focus once more. The police are still working to establish a motive behind the “isolated” attack with questions already being asked about what measures can realistically be put in place to prevent such an a dreadful incident from ever happening again.
Until now some MPs, as Cox did, advertise the times and place of their surgeries on their websites, while some only see constituents by appointment. Despite yesterday’s dreadful tragedy there is a widespread belief that these surgeries are an inherent part of having an open democracy and shouldn’t be curtailed.
Clive Betts, Labour MP for Sheffield South East, believes Members of Parliament have to be able to engage with the public. “We are there to represent the people in our constituencies and we can’t do that job without being in the public arena,” he says.
Liberal Democrat MP for Leeds North West, Greg Mulholland, knew and worked with Cox on a number of issues. He expressed his shock at her death but says that tighter security for MPs would be difficult to introduce without fundamentally changing the nature of the job.
“We are public figures and we have to carry on doing what we’re doing. In the end if we want to have an open democracy and a representative democracy we have to be accessible and we do need to be able to meet people face to face.”
Fabian Hamilton, Labour’s Leeds North East MP, told The Yorkshire Post that he had been visited by “unstable” people during his 19 years as an MP. However, he makes sure he isn’t alone when meeting a constituent.
“The way we work is you have to have a pre-arranged appointment so that way we know who’s coming. There’s always someone else in the room and we meet in a public place. We don’t do drop in surgeries any more,” he says.
“What has happened is appalling but if someone is determined to do harm to someone then it’s hard to stop them,” he says. “I don’t know what else we can do, we don’t want police officers standing outside our constituency offices and surgeries.”
Stephen Naylor was a Senior Parliamentary Assistant to Skipton and Ripon MP (Cons) Julian Smith until last year. He believes that MPs surgeries are a basic tenet of democracy in this country. “Members of Parliament are the subject of so much criticism yet week-in, week-out, across the country in constituency after constituency they are helping residents in so many positive ways. They do much of this good work as a result of surgeries – sessions where members of the public can make appointments or simply drop-in to urge their MP to help, to ask questions or take a particular position on one issue or another.”
However, he points out that such openness can make MPs potentially vulnerable. “They are a vital part of our democracy yet they are, by their very nature, a security weak point. Clearly advertised, easily accessible and open to all they are the opportunity for someone intent on causing harm to carry out a heinous act,” he says.
“When I sat in countless MP surgeries I was always nervous – you were always told by Parliamentary officials to look for escape routes, check exits and try and find out more about those who were due to see you. But in real life, that’s impossible – anyone can turn up and if they are intent on committing an act of terror then there’s no escape route in this world which could help you.”
There is a wider issue here, too, concerning the level of respect we have for our MPs. Today’s politicians are under greater public and private scrutiny than ever before and as well as dealing with the grievances of local constitutents they often face a welter of abuse via social media.
Last year, the Shadow Chancellor John McDonnell said he received a death threat for not voting in favour of air strikes against Syria, while in 2013 fellow Labour MP Stella Creasy was threatened with rape for supporting the feminist campaigner Caroline Criado-Perez.
Naylor says such vitriol is unhealthy and damaging. “MPs and their staff are performing a public service in their roles. The person who attacked Jo Cox will have seen her as a political figure, an entity and not the wife, mother and community champion who I have never heard anyone, on either side of the political spectrum, say is anything other than kind, generous and respected.
“Today, the mood of anti-politics that pervades our society cannot be healthy. It can lead to events like this. Events that should never, ever happen. This was an attack on Jo Cox, an attack on democracy and, as such, an attack on us all.”