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Editorial The killing of an MP and Britain’s sick political culture

APPALLING crimes like the murder of David Amess MP focus attention on an increasingly violent and intolerant political culture.

Ahead of tributes to the Southend West MP in Parliament today, many politicians spoke of the threats they receive. These are getting more frequent: Rhondda MP Chris Bryant describes the political atmosphere as “pretty sour … more sour now than I’ve known it in 20 years.” He attributes this to “vicious and sharp” political divisions such as that over Brexit.

The potentially lethal consequences of a highly polarised politics have long been clear. 

The negative results of a collapse in confidence in debate, engagement with opposing views and respect for democratic decision-making are all around us.

Fortunately they very rarely result in murder, but you do not need to be an MP to have witnessed the increasing tendency to declare opposing views beyond the pale, to deploy dehumanising and abusive language about those who hold them and the unsurprising rise in threats of and actual violence that accompanies such trends. 

Bryant is right that the Brexit “debate” was an example of this, though it is too little recognised that the most insulting and hate-fuelled language was as often deployed by Remain supporters against Leave voters as the other way around, with some pundits and politicians indulging in alarmingly ageist and anti-working class rhetoric.

Much liberal discourse about this polarisation ascribes it either to malevolent actors (the long-running but evidence-free claim that Russia systematically spreads disinformation to undermine Western democracy, for example) or to technological change (primarily social media and the way anonymised internet discourse has facilitated the spread of conspiracy theories and seemingly emboldened users to drop the basic courtesy most of us use when addressing each other in the real world).

Of course technology has an effect. An unhealthy mob culture of pile-ons and abuse is a hallmark of what passes for politics on Twitter. 

While the ability to make contact with like-minded people easily online has been a tremendous positive for millions, helping to reduce the isolation especially of those from marginalised groups, it can also be problematic if it replaces the messier business of getting to know and understand people with very different attitudes from ours, as we must at work or in the community.

But socialists need to look deeper at the social causes of rising intolerance. Politicians, like everyone else, have a right to safety at work. They cannot however wash their hands of a nasty political culture which many of them have helped to shape. 

Respect for democracy has declined at least in part because of the conduct of many MPs, through the venality exposed by the expenses scandal, the contempt for those outside the Westminster bubble shown in the face of the mass political movement that was Corbynism, the public perception that politicians were determined to thwart the people’s decision to leave the EU.

It wasn’t bolstered by the cynicism of some in Parliament who conflated any demand for accountability with bullying, while ignoring threats of violence against political opponents such as Jeremy Corbyn (encouraged by the incendiary language often used about him, including by MPs) or Diane Abbott (who receives torrents of racist and sexist abuse and a distinct lack of solidarity from many colleagues).

In short, the need for a “different kind of politics” should encompass a transformation of the culture at Westminster as much as elsewhere.

And it can only be achieved democratically, through mass engagement that gives people a stake in politics. 

Too often, as with US president George W Bush’s infamous Patriot Act after the September 11 2001 terrorist attacks, tragedy is used to justify anti-democratic repression which not only undermines all our rights but fuels a cycle of disengagement, alienation and violence.

We should not give this highly authoritarian Tory government leeway to exploit this tragedy in that fashion.

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