British political leaders come together to pay tribute to slain lawmaker

Mayuko Ono and Pan Pylas
Associated Press

Leigh-on-Sea, England – Leaders from across the political spectrum came together Saturday to pay their respects to a long-serving British lawmaker who was stabbed to death in what police say was a terrorist-related attack. His death has reopened questions about the security of lawmakers as they go about their work.

The slaying Friday of the 69-year-old Conservative lawmaker David Amess during his regular weekly meeting with local voters has caused shock and anxiety across Britain’s political spectrum, just five years after Labour Party lawmaker Jo Cox was murdered by a far-right extremist in her small-town constituency.

British Prime Minister Boris Johnson, right, and Leader of the Labour Party Keir Starmer carry flowers as they arrive at the scene where a member of Parliament was stabbed Friday, in Leigh-on-Sea, Essex, England, Saturday, Oct. 16, 2021.

“He was killed doing a job that he loves, serving his own constituents as an elected democratic member and, of course, acts of this are absolutely wrong, and we cannot let that get in the way of our functioning democracy,” British Home Secretary Priti Patel said after she joined others, including Prime Minister Boris Johnson, to pay tribute to Amess at the church where he died.

Patel said she has already convened meetings with the Speaker of the House of Commons, police departments and U.K. security services “to make sure that all measures are being put in place for the security of MPs so that they can carry on with their duties as elected democratic members.”

Amess was attacked around midday Friday during his weekly constituency meeting in a church in Leigh-on-Sea, a town 40 miles (62 kilometers) east of London. He suffered multiple stab wounds. Paramedics tried without success to save him. Police have arrested a 25-year-old British man for the attack.

In a statement early Saturday, the Metropolitan Police described the attack as terrorism and said its early investigation “has revealed a potential motivation linked to Islamist extremism.” It did not provide any details about the basis for that assessment. As part of the investigation, officers were searching two locations in the London area.

Amess died doing what he most cherished – helping out residents in his seaside constituency of Southend West. Under Britain’s parliamentary system, lawmakers have direct links with their local voters, often hosting open meetings, or “surgeries,” on Fridays to listen to their concerns.

The meetings often take place in local facilities, such as churches and community halls, and are publicly advertised. Amess himself posted online where he would be hosting his surgery on Friday.

“The reason he wanted to use the church was because he wanted to be where the people were,” said Rev. Clifford Newman at the Belfairs Methodist Church where Amess was killed.

“And if you come to somewhere which is in the locality like Belfairs, as opposed to some ivory tower somewhere, people are more likely to feel easier, freer and more likely to open up to him,” he added.

At the meetings, the topics raised by constituents can range from national matters such as the government’s handling of the coronavirus pandemic to more mundane issues such as requests for speed bumps on busy roads or a dispute over a neighbor’s fence.

While members of Parliament don’t necessarily have the power to fix the problems brought to them, they can use their positions and access to pressure officials at the national and local levels to get things done.

“I feel as if I have lost a family member. I feel that he was the family of Southend, he was the leader of Southend,” resident Erica Keane, 69, said. “And he was everywhere! He was at the football pitches, he was in the choirs, he was in the pubs, he was everywhere and he was Southend.”

Amess was clearly a popular lawmaker, winning 10 out of 10 elections since he was first elected to parliament in 1983. Though he never served as a government minister during his long career and had a reputation of being a social conservative on issues such as capital punishment and abortion, he was considered a fixer in Parliament, a lawmaker able to forge alliances across the political divide.

Friday’s killing has renewed concern about the risks politicians run as they go about their work representing voters. British politicians generally are not given police protection when they meet with their constituents – unlike the high-security measures that are in place in Parliament.

Tobias Ellwood, a leading Conservative lawmaker who gave first aid to a police officer stabbed at the gates of Parliament in 2017, is one who’s already voicing the need for change. He said face-to-face meetings with voters should be temporarily paused pending the security review that Patel has started, with interactions conducted online.

Veteran Labour lawmaker Harriet Harman also said she planned to write to the prime minister to ask him to back a conference to review the safety of parliamentarians.

“I think that, while we anguish about this dreadful loss, we can’t just assert that nothing should change,” Harman told BBC radio. “I don’t think anybody wants to go to a situation where the police are vetting individual constituents who come and see us, but I’m sure there is a safer way to go about our business.”

Under a so-called Speaker’s Conference, the speaker brings together political parties and authorities to come up with non-partisan recommendations. They occur rarely, about once every 10 years.

“Since Jo Cox’s tragic killing, we’ve had changes in our home security, we’ve had changes in security in Parliament, but we haven’t looked at the issue of how we go about that important business in our constituency, but do it in a safe way,” Harman said. “I think we must do that now.”

On Saturday morning, in an echo of the political unity that emerged in the immediate aftermath of Cox’s murder, the Conservatives’s Johnson, the leader of the opposition Labour Party, Keir Starmer, and the non-partisan speaker of the House of Commons, Lindsay Hoyle, arrived at the church where Amess died and laid flowers.