On Friday afternoon, I was interviewed by BBC Radio Devon about calls for increased security for MPs in the wake of the Jo Cox murder. It can be found here just after 38 minutes in. I tried to place this in a comparative context with the United States. In my lifetime, only five sitting members of Congress have been shot or killed while serving. Gabrielle Giffords in 2011 and John Stennis in 1973 (a mugging) survived. Those that didn’t include RFK in 1968 (but as I point out in the interview, he was running for president, so it’s a little different), Leo Ryan in 1978 (Jonestown), and Larry McDonald in 1983 (KAL 007).
I have two thoughts on this list. First (again as I point out in the interview) I’m surprised the number is that low given the gun culture in the US. Second, there’s not much commonality tying all five together. The only two that bear any sort of resemblance to what happened here on Thursday are Kennedy and Giffords, and that’s tenuous.
My broader point in the interview, moving beyond the comparisons with the US, is that we shouldn’t over-react. I enjoy the degree of approachability that MPs here have, which isn’t surprising considering that the average size of constituencies in the UK (as measured by ‘electorate’) ranges from 57,044 in Wales to 72,676 in England (for the 2015 General Election). They’re known to those in the community who want to get to meet them, not only as faces on TV or billboards, but as human beings. This past academic year, I launched a new seminar series for the students at the university where I invited in a number of politicians and others who are politically active to discuss their own politicisation and how students can take such a course if they so desire. Included in these presentations were four MPs (three Conservative, one Labour) and an MEP (Green). In going for partisan balance, I also had among the list of speakers a UKIP city councillor, but I had a difficult time finding a Liberal Democrat who wanted to show their face. I managed this at, lets face it, a regional university. Adding a security detail to this mix might have reduced the approachability and availability of these serving politicians. (For something of a counter-point, read Paul Goodman, an ex-MP, writing in Conservative Home).
Side note: the presenter on BBC Radio Devon Friday afternoon was Gordon Sparks, who did a guest piece for LGM a bit over two years ago.
Returning to the murder of Jo Cox, I now feel safe in using the word “assassination”. On the day, Paul quoted Alex Massie’s discussion of the rhetorical context in which this murder took place. We now know that the SPLC has a file on Thomas Mair’s hard-right / neo-Nazi proclivities. The evidence is overwhelming enough now such that The Telegraph is calling it as it is: an act of far-Right terrorism. When Mair appeared in court yesterday and was asked to confirm his name, he said “My name is death to traitors, freedom for Britain.”
I think we understand his motivations. The photo above circulated on social media yesterday, originally (I believe) attributable to David Neiwert of the SPLC. While Britain First immediately (indeed, before the suspect was even named, I think) distanced themselves from the shooting, the photo (if it is him, which has not been confirmed to my knowledge) calls this into question.
Finally, there have been several new polls released in the past 24 hours, and one of which had a significant chunk of its field work conducted following the murder of Jo Cox. If you don’t want to pore over the numbers at UKPR, this Observer piece has a nice assessment. Upshot: the numbers are tightening, with a notable shift towards the remain side. We can expect this as polling day approaches; it’s typical in a referendum / initiative campaign. Encouraging for those of us on the remain side, remain is (barely) ahead in all but one of the polls, and there’s a large number of undecideds. On Thursday (while not freaking out), I pointed out that the greater the number of undecideds, the better the chances for remain, so I’m taking some solace in this. For additional solace, one can read this:
Given the extraordinarily low response rate, there is a good chance the highly excited leave supporters in every demographic by which Pollsters weight their samples: age, education, socioeconomic class, party affiliation etc, are significantly more likely to respond. The Be.Leavers are enjoying this referendum. The Bremainers are thoroughly sick of the whole referendum and cannot wait until it’s over. I cannot see how this can be captured in their methodologies.
Basically, I think there’s a good chance the polls are at least as wrong as the General election, which would be nearly enough to get Remain over the winning post.
There are 13% undecided in the last Survation poll. These people will break for the status quo, as they have in most referendums in the past.
The ground game: where one side has access to all the party machines, and the other, leave has access to UKIP’s chaotic machine alone, and no national footprint or experience in national ‘Get Out The Vote’ operations.
While he (I’m assuming the author is a he given the title of the blog) acknowledges that his argument can be written off to some degree as the typical “the polls must be wrong!” response to being behind, two good points are made (in addition to the undecideds discussion): the leave camp are significantly more motivated and mobilised, which might have an impact on the makeup of the response rate (especially to on-line polls). Second, which I haven’t considered, is the ground game. That said, speaking from several years of experience in the Labour Party ground machine, whereas in a local or general election we have data, for this, we’ll have a lot less data, especially given how the referendum crosses party lines.
One final note. Commentators and, dare I say, lazy assessments of the recent shift in the polling numbers will look to the murder of Jo Cox as a pivotal event. It very well might be. However, in the current batch of polls, most of the fieldwork was done before the murder; in short, there was already a shift to remain underway. Additionally, even once fresh numbers are released in the coming days, we’ll likely never know with any certainty if this had any effect at all on support for the referendum, or the final result. Early reports this morning do indicate that it has had the effect of softening the rhetorical tone of the campaign, which is a good thing.