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Can a staple of British democracy survive MP’s killing? – The Christian Science Monitor

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October 28, 2021
The stabbing death of a British parliamentarian, Sir David Amess, this month is the second killing of a sitting MP in five years, after Labour’s Jo Cox was slain at the hands of the far-right in 2016. And it’s raising concerns over the current safety plans around elected members of Parliament and whether meeting openly in the kind of “office hours” they offer is worth the risk.
These security concerns come at a time when the pandemic had already closed doors on in-person meetings, as the globe shifted to virtual settings. Many MPs who had returned to their “surgeries” have opted to do so by appointment only. And now many are shutting down altogether as the government undertakes a security review.

The face-to-face meetings that British parliamentarians hold with voters might seem quaint, but they hedge against modern-day populism. After the stabbing of a British MP, they are under threat.
For citizens and politicians alike, it creates a sense of disconnection that experts are concerned could lead to more disillusionment in the political process. In some ways, in fact, the “surgery” acts as a bulwark against extreme populism.
When the political class “falls into disrepute,” says Andrew Russell, professor of politics at the University of Liverpool, one of the things people talk about is “the distance they feel between rulers and the ordinary person.”
On his weekly one day off from his job as an Uber driver, Mohammed Rahman would often swing by the office of his local elected member of Parliament, Sir Keir Starmer, to say hello and air his concerns. More than anything, the visits provided “a sense of connection,” he explains, “that my MP cared for me and my community, and not just those in a position of influence in Westminster.”
Those weekly face-to-face meetings, known in Britain as “surgeries,” have been as ordinary as their settings – this one tucked away on the ground floor of an unassuming block of social housing in North London, between a laundromat and the British Somali Community Centre.
But now a routine part of British democracy could become increasingly rare. After the brutal killing of Sir David Amess, a Tory MP who was stabbed to death Oct. 15 while holding an open “surgery” at a local church, lawmakers have been forced to shut the door on their constituents. 

The face-to-face meetings that British parliamentarians hold with voters might seem quaint, but they hedge against modern-day populism. After the stabbing of a British MP, they are under threat.
The slaying of Mr. Amess is the second killing of a sitting MP in five years, after that of Labour MP Jo Cox at the hands of the far-right in 2016. And it’s raising concerns over the current safety plans around elected members of Parliament and whether meeting openly in the kind of “office hours” they offer is worth the risk.
Security concerns come at a time when the pandemic had already closed doors on in-person meetings, as the globe shifted to virtual settings. Many MPs who had returned to their surgeries have opted to do so by appointment only. And now many are shutting down altogether as the government undertakes a security review.
For citizens like Mr. Rahman, who is originally from Somalia, and politicians alike, it creates a sense of disconnection that experts are concerned could lead to more disillusionment in the political process. In some ways, in fact, the surgery acts as a bulwark against extreme populism.
When the political class “falls into disrepute,” says Andrew Russell, professor of politics at the University of Liverpool, one of the things people talk about is “the distance they feel between rulers and the ordinary person.”
“Technology can’t be used to replace old-fashioned meetings. … The distance might lead to the impression that politicians are a breed apart and not like us,” says Professor Russell. “That populist rising that we’ve seen across the world in recent times comes from a sense that people feel that politicians aren’t really carrying out their business on behalf of the people.”
Politicians are no strangers to a disgruntled public. One of the main points of the surgery is to provide a space to air grievances. But in a context where hate crimes are on the rise amid divisive politics driven by Brexit, social media, and the pandemic, risks to politicians have grown. Elected officials who take stands on those divisive issues on the national stage, or represent their party’s stance, often face angry individuals at the local level. 
Mr. Amess, whose funeral will be held at Westminster Cathedral next month, was killed at the Belfairs Methodist Church Hall in Leigh-on-Sea, about 40 miles from London. A suspect has been charged, and authorities are preparing terrorist charges, but no clear link or motive has been determined.
Ms. Cox was also killed by an extremist in 2016, which, amid the divisiveness of the Brexit debate, rocked the country. Another Labour MP, Stephen Timms, survived two stab wounds in 2010 perpetrated by a woman who claims she was adhering to the ideology of Al Qaeda.
British Home Secretary Priti Patel is now reviewing security measures for all lawmakers, which could lead to more police security – and increase perceptions of distance from leadership.
That wedge has an impact on how well politicians fulfill their jobs, says Patrick Diamond, former head of policy at No. 10 Downing St. “It is the point of connection with their constituents that keeps them grounded with the issues affecting people’s lives,” he says, “whether it’s benefit changes, housing, or education.”
While they may come across as old-fashioned in an increasingly virtual and scheduled world, political surgeries are a relatively recent shift in the last 20 years as MPs focused on delivering at the local level. 
“It was not common as recently as the 1980s for MPs to hold regular surgeries, particularly in areas where there was not likely to be a significant change in elections,” says Dr. Diamond, now a politics lecturer at Queen Mary University of London. Where once they employed a part-time secretary, MPs have teams of up to 10 people making such meetings happen.
While the pandemic opened up new opportunities in virtual gathering, it also revealed the limitations of email and Zoom conferencing. Psychotherapist and drama coach Andre Radmall says that being in the same physical space is a vital component of both democracy and human connection.
“When you see people face-to-face in the same space, you can take in more information. You’re taking in the context around the person, through their body language,” he says. “That builds trust.”
Surgeries also act as an equalizing force, whether that’s for newcomers with limited English, low-income communities with limited access, or older people who can’t navigate the virtual world as easily as their younger counterparts. For urban seats with lower-income and multiethnic households, “there is a demand for support and advice from the MP,” says Dr. Diamond.
For widow and retiree Barbara Grossman, speaking to her MP “is a lifeline” for older people without technological literacy. “It keeps strong the bond with my community, but more so, them with us,” she says upon leaving her allotted appointment time outside a Labour Party office in East London.
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She says that, after one meeting, her MP helped with a complicated visa situation for her son. This time it was her damaged roof that made her set an appointment. She’s not seen many people during the pandemic, so seeing her MP is an opportunity to speak to somebody in person, even if it’s brief, she says. And they see her, too.
“If they can see our emotion upfront, and not forget little old me, then long may it continue.” 
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