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Sunday, June 19, 2016

Protecting our democracy

I was in a bar in Croatia when I saw the news on social media that Jo Cox had died. I was surrounded by English fans and Wales had just lost to England as the result of a last minute goal. I was too shocked by the senseless and tragic killing of an MP to fully take in the football result.

Instinctively and almost as if I was seeking validation of my sense of loss I turned to the man next to me, with whom I had passed what until then had been a pleasant afternoon, and suggested that the game had been put into harsh perspective by the horrific murder of a public representative carrying out her public duties.

"Well, that is one less politician," he said.

The cynicism and hatred that sums up many people's attitude to politicians and politics has not been broken by the murder of Jo Cox. It will take some considerable time before we can put that behind us, if we can at all.

It is almost as if the outpouring of grief and sympathy that followed her death has been compartmentalised. Our hope must be that a turning point has been reached and that attitudes will eventually change.

From what I have read of her, Jo Cox was an extraordinary person, compassionate, dedicated, principled, hard-working and utterly devoted to representing the people who elected her. She was exceptional but those qualities are also found to varying degrees in the vast majority of politicians at all levels.

It is sad that the public do not recognise this, that their view of politics and politicians has been soured by a few bad apples, and that when they do have direct contact with an elected representative and find that it is a good experience, they consider it to be an exception rather than the norm.

One thing that does need to change is the way that MPs' safety is secured. As an AM, I always ignored police advice to take staff with me to advice surgeries. I considered that the fact I held them in a public place, normally libraries, made me more secure.

My office though had CCTV at the entrances and in the meeting room, with prominent notices telling people that was the case. I also provided a personal alarm for staff. and reinforced the entrances to the building. Other AMs went further.

In 17 years I only really felt threatened once during a surgery. I know that my staff were concerned about safety on more than one occasion.

The BBC report that MPs are now reviewing the way that they work and that the House authorities are working with the police to see how they can assist with that. Nick Clegg is right though when he says that the attack on Jo Cox was:

".....a vile affront to our democracy. One of the great things about our democracy is that anybody can just wander in and see their MP in their weekly surgeries.

"That violence against Jo, although that is the most important thing ... is also violence against our democratic values and very proud democratic traditions."

The one thing we must hold onto is the proud tradition in this country of easy access to our elected representatives. If possible we must not let security considerations get in the way of such access.

The best way to achieve that in the long term is to change the way that politicians are viewed by the public, to win back the respect we once had for this most vital profession.
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