I last saw David Amess a fortnight ago in the slightly incongruous setting of a houseboat moored on the Manchester Ship Canal.
We were attending the annual conference party thrown by Thurrock MP Jackie Doyle-Price, where David was in typically ebullient form.
As he left, he asked about my mother – the former Labour MP for Hampstead & Highgate – with whom he used to spar across the Commons chamber.
‘Give her my love,’ he requested, ‘though I’m not sure she would remember me.’
All Labour MPs remember David. His surprise victory in Basildon on Election night 1992 brought an end to the party’s hopes of ousting John Major.
But it was never held against him. As the warmth and sincerity of the tributes that have been paid from the Labour benches attest.
All Labour MPs remember David. His surprise victory in Basildon on Election night 1992 brought an end to the party’s hopes of ousting John Major
Though not all of those tributes have been welcomed. As news of the appalling attack was filtering through, a tweet from Angela Rayner expressing her own sympathies provoked anger from several Tory MPs and officials.
‘She was calling us scum a few days ago,’ one told me. ‘She doesn’t get to express sympathy today.’
In the immediate aftermath of a horrifying event such as this, it’s understandable that emotions run high. So it’s important not to reach for knee-jerk-reactions, or apportion unnecessary blame.
But when an elected Member of Parliament has just been stabbed to death in their constituency surgery – and a house of worship – it’s also important not to hide unpalatable truths.
A court case is pending, and the terrible facts surrounding the death of David Amess will be brought to light.
But those seeking a direct parallel between the comments of Angela Rayner and the attack in Leigh-on-Sea should desist. Whatever motivated his killer, it will not prove to have been some ill-advised words at a Labour fringe meeting.
But if the brutal killing of a Conservative MP should not be used to draw inappropriate political parallels, it should at least give people pause.
And more specifically, it should give people on the Left pause.
As news of the appalling attack was filtering through, a tweet from Angela Rayner expressing her own sympathies provoked anger from several Tory MPs and officials
When Jo Cox was murdered, a consensus quickly formed, one that prevails. It held that while she was murdered by a single individual, he did not act alone.
Thomas Mair was a product of what was loosely dubbed ‘far-Right’ extremism. He had links to the National Front and the English Defence League, and toured the internet, immersing himself in extremist far-Right propaganda.
Poison that still exists today. It can be seen in the fragmented but still active far-Right hate groups. It can be seen at the fringes of elements of the pro-Brexit movement. And it can increasingly be identified among elements of the anti-vax movement.
So the threat of Right-wing extremism is real. But at least it is recognised and, in the main, universally condemned by the political mainstream. And it exists primarily on the political fringes.
This morning, we have to begin to talk about and confront the scourge of Left-wing extremism.
It is a very different creature to the extremism of the Right. It is less overtly violent. But it is equally toxic and represents an equal risk to our democracy and its parliamentary representatives. Because, crucially, it does not reside on the political margins.
When an elected Member of Parliament has just been stabbed to death in their constituency surgery – and a house of worship – it’s also important not to hide unpalatable truths
One of the tributes issued to David Amess was from Labour MP John McDonnell. But in 2011, McDonnell said this: ‘I want to be in a situation where no Tory MP, no Tory or MP, no Coalition Minister, can travel anywhere in the country or show their face anywhere in public without being challenged by direct action.’
He added: ‘Any institution or any individual that attacks our class, we will come for you with direct action.’
Another of the tributes issued to David Amess came from Jeremy Corbyn. But recently the former Labour leader spoke at a fringe meeting at conference, at which he said: ‘You’ve probably noticed members of the Socialist Campaign Group disproportionately go through hell, high water and beyond at the hands of the media and the briefing machines… can we just have a thought tonight in absolute solidarity with our great friend Claudia Webbe for what she’s going through?’
Last Wednesday, Webbe was found guilty of harassment after threatening to throw acid at her partner’s female friend, and to send naked photos of her to her children.
The hatred on the far Right of politics is – rightly – well documented. But it’s no longer sustainable to continue to ignore and normalise the hatred nurtured within the mainstream of the Labour Party and the wider Labour movement.
When it was reported that Iain Duncan Smith and his wife had been assaulted walking towards the secure zone of the Tory Party conference, it was done so almost as an afterthought. The abuse and harassment of Conservative MPs and delegates attending their conference has become so routine it barely merits comment.
In fact, a perception has formed that for Tories this is merely the price of doing business.
Within Labour – the mainstream of the party, not the fringe – that is literally the view. The belief is that the Tories, simply because they are Tories, deserve what’s coming to them.
As I wrote a couple of weeks ago, Angela Rayner did not brand all her Conservative parliamentary colleagues ‘scum’ because she really believes they’re all scum. She said it because she’s politically ambitious, and she thinks to get on in the Labour Party this is what her members want to hear. And she’s right, they do.
When it was reported that Iain Duncan Smith and his wife had been assaulted walking towards the secure zone of the Tory Party conference, it was done so almost as an afterthought
Politics is tough. All parties attempt to caricature – and to an extent demonise – their opponents. It was Conservative Central Office that was behind the most literal example, the Tony Blair ‘Demon Eyes’ poster.
But it is no longer possible to draw equivalence about the toxicity that exists within the two main parties. A visceral hatred of Tories is now embedded in Labour’s DNA in a way that is simply not reciprocated.
John McDonnell is not some Twitter warrior, but the former Labour Shadow Chancellor. Does anyone seriously think Rishi Sunak would contemplate instructing Tory activists to subject his opponents to the ominous-sounding direct action?
Could anyone imagine Theresa May expressing ‘solidarity’ with a Tory MP a day after evidence had been presented in court they had threatened to throw acid in someone’s face?
It’s not OK any more. Casual hatred of Conservative politicians and activists simply for committing the crime of being Conservatives is not acceptable. Not just because it ultimately proves counterproductive to the Left’s cause. Or because of the threat it poses to wider political engagement and democratic discourse. It’s wrong because it’s wrong.
A visceral hatred of Tories is now embedded in Labour’s DNA in a way that is simply not reciprocated. John McDonnell is not some Twitter warrior, but the former Labour Shadow Chancellor
And everyone – at least every sensible, decent person, of which there are many – in Labour’s ranks knows it’s wrong. Keir Starmer knows it. Angela Rayner knows it. Every Labour MP knows it. How ‘Never Kissed A Tory’ hatred is the currency of Labour politics.
It can’t continue like this. It can’t take the killing of a Conservative MP in their constituency office for the Left to set aside their tribalism and acknowledge the essential decency of one of their opponents.
Not least because that tribalism will not be set aside for long. Tomorrow, the House of Commons will gather for a moment of reflection. Sir Keir Starmer and other Labour MPs will help lead the tributes. And then it will be back to business as usual. ‘Tories – they hate the poor, they hate the migrants. They deserve everything they get.’
They don’t. Because they’re not ‘scum’. Tories are good, honest, decent, committed public servants, who just happen to have a different political philosophy.
David Amess wasn’t the exception, he was the rule. And it’s time for people on the Left – indeed, for all of us – to start to recognise it.