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Political debate has coarsened. We MPs can take the lead in restoring calm and respect

·5-min read
<span>Photograph: Henry Nicholls/Reuters</span>
Photograph: Henry Nicholls/Reuters

The feelings are so visceral. Sir David Amess’s family are the first and last thought. I cannot imagine what this is like for them, but I feel devastating horror that again a family is without a beloved and needed member. I want to scream. Many of us have been thrown back five years, our heads full of gut-wrenching memories and the horrible reality of an MP stolen from us in the heart of the place they served.

Related: David Amess latest: Priti Patel says MPs ‘cannot be cowed by any individual’

There aren’t many similarities between Jo Cox and David. She had served for just a year, he for the best part of 40 years – a lifetime of service. But the visceral feelings are the same. As Jo’s husband, Brendan, said, it is his family who matter now. Their deep love for David should be celebrated alongside the lifetime that he gave in the service of others.

I watched an interview David gave to Iain Dale. He talked about his love of the Commons and the truth of it shines through: doing politics won’t always get you universal respect, but done well, it can make you a better person.

The journey many of us go on, from tribal party loyalist to enjoying the company of those we disagree with, to seeing their reasons and their values and actually understanding them, is one that is common to all sides. You’ll rarely read about it. But politics, correctly practised, can be the best antidote to cynicism there is.

I started my life as an MP cynical about Westminster and I am all too aware of its failings now. But I have learned from David and his generation of MPs that making an argument in the House of Commons works best when there are people listening, when there are others around you to be persuaded, when there is agreement to be found and identified among the disagreement.

If I am still sceptical about political media of all forms – old and new, print, broadcast and social – it is not just because of the tone often taken, but because of this: how, in the current environment, can we show that we are listening to each other? How can we help others to feel heard?

What Jo understood so clearly, and what David talked about in that interview is how we make progress not just by rallying those who are in our tribe. How finding a few other people quite different from yourself, but with whom you have something in common is a powerful tool in changing the country for the better.

If I could say one thing to the politicians who will come after me, it would be this: Jo’s words now written on the wall of the House of Commons – “More in Common” – are not there to remind you what she said. They are an organising instruction. They are there to tell you how to move our country on.

I know many people will find it hard to understand how the bickering they see from us correlates with that instruction. Can it really be the case that the political world forever at war with itself could be any good at bringing people together? True, it is hard sometimes but the answer is not to give up, and David never did, on any of the many campaigns he ran. The answer is to listen more. Think hard about where others are coming from. Empathy, understanding, compassion. These are the skills that make our politics function.

The truth of it shines through: doing politics won’t always get you universal respect, but done well, it can make you a better person

So, as we once again face the horrendous reality before us and turn to the many practical tasks ahead – whether that is the security consequences or the social media norms that have to change – my thoughts keep returning to the lessons of life.

The reason why we carry on meeting our constituents in person is that it is indispensable in creating the bond of empathy. I remember the first piece of casework I did as a local councillor as if it were yesterday. I could tell you the woman’s name. I can see her face. And I could tell physically how the stress of her situation was weighing her down.

That human-to-human connection made me not just want to help, but to understand. I am sure it is the same for everyone in politics: what use are we unless we are of use to others? It is what makes it mean something. It is what makes politics mean anything at all. We must be able to help people safely and securely and, most especially, our staff must be safe.

Most importantly today, I’m thinking of the Conservatives and others who spoke up for Jo when she was killed and those friends who will be in an irreparable darkness today. I want them to know that they are loved and that David’s killing will be hard to bear but that all of us in politics and in the country join them in sorrow.

And the crucial lesson is one learned through experience. Companionship, empathy and compassion are the unseen strengths of British politics. It has carried me through the past five years and it will be the path for a better future for all of us.

Alison McGovern is MP for Wirral South and shadow minister (Digital, Culture, Media and Sport)

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