When the awful murder of Jo Cox MP was announced yesterday, I decided to stop campaigning for a while out of respect for her husband and young family. After 24 hours silence, I have decided to rejoin the fray because notwithstanding these terrible events, the country is still faced with an historic referendum that will determine the future strategic direction of the country for many years to come. It is therefore right that the democratic process continues although both sides may have to make changes to the tone of their campaigns and to recognise the public shock and anger that this attack has stirred.
Disappointingly, it seems there are some that are seeking to make political capital from this attack and in particular from conflicting reports that the assailant shouted ‘Britain first’ during his attack. I have two points about this. First, speculation about the details of the attack are unhelpful and could prejudice future legal proceedings. Trials can collapse if they are seen to be prejudiced by prior media reporting and therefore journalists and commentators should tread warily and avoid speculation. In my experience, witnesses to traumatic events can often give different and conflicting accounts of what they saw or heard despite trying to provide an honest recollection or perception of events. Often, it is only after a full investigation that an accurate picture can be established, and it is therefore important to let the police do their work without any media interference, speculation or comment based on rumours or only a partial view of the facts.
My second point is that whether or not the attack was politically motivated is largely irrelevant to the referendum question before the country. The question is not about political violence. It is solely about our membership of a European political institution. None of the subsidiary issues connected with the question should be affected as a result of a young mother with altruistic views losing her life on the street whilst honestly serving her country. Even if Jo Cox supported the Remain side of the campaign, it is right to say that her death does not automatically make the Remain argument correct even though we all feel complete compassion for Jo’s friends and family. It would be a terrible blow to our freedom of speech to allow her murder to stifle or constrain the debate on a national matter of such importance. Moreover, if we allow fear and violence to affect the discussion we play into the very hands of those that would seek to use violent or undemocratic means to undermine our parliamentary process.
Having said that, egged on by an ever-hungry media, the mood in the country does seem to have changed in the last 24 hours, and the Leave Campaign needs to modify its approach not only to respect the new mood but also to ensure that its message is not lost in a chorus that will likely try to convince voters that to vote leave is somehow to condone the events in Birstall. It is a matter of tone rather than substance. Most Leave supporters won’t change their minds but a soft centre ground could easily switch sides unless matters are handled sensitively. Here are 4 ideas in no particular order:
This week, the Leave Campaign seemed to gain real momentum in the polls and was starting to set the agenda. Any delay in campaigning is to the advantage of David Cameron and his Remain campaign. It will allow them time to regroup and to lead the discussion when it recommences, probably with an attempt to gain the moral high ground. The campaigns should start again as soon as is decently possible to limit this effect.
The immigration debate needs to be couched in terms of parliamentary accountability. Fear mongering about migrants should be avoided throughout social media. The main argument is that immigration is a matter that should be decided in our own national parliament rather than in Brussels. In many respects, this tragedy has put into sharp focus the good that MPs can achieve if empowered, and the Brexit debate should concentrate on why it is better to have that power residing in Westminster rather than elsewhere. I have always held this view about immigration and parliamentary accountability but it is not universally shared within the Leave Campaigns.
Attacks on the establishment will need to be handled very carefully. Individual MPs acting for constituencies are not in my view ‘the establishment’ and it is wrong to question their motives or honesty. It is when they act collectively within the Party system and as governments that much political honesty is lost especially when they act beyond their authority within unelected institutions that wield far too much power. That said, blatant examples of individual political dishonesty, double standards or duplicity are still fair game but the way that they are challenged needs to be thought out carefully.
Arguments about whether the Remain side are trying to weaponise the death of Jo Cox are counter-productive and waste valuable campaigning time. It is better to concentrate on getting out your own campaign message rather than to play on the home territory of the opposition. It is always better to turn the opposition’s negative campaigning into a positive argument for your own side of the argument. Support for our parliamentary process is a good example of how you can do this. Now more than ever, the Leave Campaign needs a positive message delivered confidently in measured terms and with a smile. There should be no anger: leave that behind.
It is therefore a matter of emphasis and tone, and I would urge all Leave campaigners to think carefully before they press the ‘send’ or ‘tweet’ button. Undecided voters and soft Leavers need to be very carefully handled between now and the vote next Thursday. It would be a shame to lose this argument through ill considered behaviour or arguments.