Since Jo Cox was murdered, like MPs across the country, I have had many emails, texts, Tweets and Facebook messages from people to express condolences, support and love. I have also had people stopping me to show their support for Jo’s family and for my family. I thank you all for your words of comfort. It is really important to say that such sentiments have been the overwhelming reaction of the wonderful people of our country, as we all try to respond to Jo’s death.
Sadly there is another reaction to what happened to Jo. A very sinister reaction. It comes from a small number of people. A man screamed at me this afternoon. He told me I was a disgrace and that I had destroyed his community. Apart from having no idea what he meant, I tried to remind him that my colleague had been murdered, that a mum of two small children had been killed and that his behaviour was completely out of order. He just ignored what I said and continued to be extremely abusive at me. It appears that he has previously been abusive to a local councillor several times.
In my constituency, there are groups who have Facebook pages on which people have written, that local politicians are “deceitful”, “corrupt b******s,” “lying scum”, “self-serving b******s”, “leeches” and “two-faced lying b******s,”. Meanwhile, my staff have been threatened by someone who says he will come to my office with a baseball bat. Twice, constituents have shouted at me in the street and then started shoving me in the chest.
And yet what I describe is as nothing compared to what some of my colleagues around the country have experienced, especially threats against women and vicious racism, which is all too common. And that’s before mentioning those threatened with rape and death.
Political discourse involves passionate debate. It does mean disagreement between people of opposing views between political parties and within parties as well. But well before Jo’s death, something had changed in this country. The reporting of politics and much else has concentrated on the negatives for a long time, on how to find mistakes rather than on how to discuss good, optimistic ideas. And politicians of all parties play the game. We all look to undermine our opponents and score points. It is part of politics.
In the last few weeks and months, the passion had turned to something far worse. Fear and prejudice was used in the London Mayoral campaign and we have seen it extensively in the referendum campaign. It brings out the worst in us all. It encourages those who harbour extreme views or who have strong and unpleasant reactions. It encourages them to express their views more openly. It encourages an uninhibited expression of nastiness, as the simple Facebook examples I quoted have shown. Those examples are from March and April this year by the way.
Those in the media, in politics in public life more generally understood that something had gone very wrong before last Thursday’s dreadful killing of Jo Cox. So all of us should look in the mirror. And those in denial should look more than once because what has Britain become if we do not change the way we carry on our public debates? When the news and social media is full of hate, is it any wonder if hateful messages become more common, or if people feel they have permission to post the kinds of comment on Facebook or Twitter, I described?
Jo’s husband, Brendan said that their two small children must be bathed in love. He also said that we must unite to fight against the hatred that killed Jo. That means all of us in public life must change the way we work, the language we use and the example we set. After all, as Jo showed us, it is amazing what we can achieve when we work together.