The Eye of the Storm: Constituencies in a Crisis
Members of the public attend a vigil for the victims of the Keyham mass shooting at North Down Crescent Park in Keyham, Plymouth, 13 August 2021 | Alamy
What is the role of an MP in the aftermath of a local disaster? From fire and flood to violent crime, MPs often take the lead in helping to resolve problems when tragedy strikes. But is it part of the job, or should there be more support for MPs and staff? Georgina Bailey reports
It was 6pm on Thursday 12 August 2021, and Luke Pollard, Labour MP for Plymouth, Sutton and Devonport, had just got back to his constituency. He’d been visiting an elephant sanctuary in Bristol to talk about the Ivory Act. “It was World Elephant Day,” he explains.
For Pollard, then Labour’s shadow environment secretary, this was a normal day in parliamentary recess. As he arrived home, the streets of his Plymouth constituency were busy with children playing outside, enjoying the warm weather and the summer holidays.
That would all change. At 6.11pm, 22-year-old Jake Davison shot and killed his 51-year-old mother, Maxine, after an argument in their home in the Keyham area of Plymouth. Davison then left the house and shot six more people, killing four, before turning the gun on himself. One of those who died was a three-year-old girl; the whole incident lasted 12 minutes.
“You could see it immediately; people were sharing stuff on social media straight away. It was soon clear that something very bad was happening in Keyham,” Pollard says of that evening. “Although there wasn’t a lot of information available from official sources, I rang the local Neighbourhood Watch, and it was clear this was bad.” From Pollard’s home half a mile away from the shooting, he could see the air ambulances coming in to land. He put out a statement on social media telling people to stay home and listen to police. “I thought it was my job to help share messages that would keep people safe.”
There is no guidebook for MPs when a tragedy hits their constituency; as Pollard and others have found out, it is mostly instinct.
We were literally doing casework on our phones for probably two weeks before we even got a computer in the office
So what is the role of an MP in the aftermath of a local disaster?
The first priority for any MP after a catastrophic event is providing immediate support for constituents. This can range from emotional help to assisting rehousing or insurance claims – one even found himself removing stitches from a constituent’s cat.
Emma Dent Coad had been an MP for just four days when Grenfell Tower in her Kensington constituency went up in flames in the middle of the night on 14 June 2017, killing 72 people. The inferno was three streets from her own home. “When I arrived at the site while the fire was raging, people were looking at me like ‘Oh, thank heavens Emma is here,’” Dent Coad says. “I didn’t have an office, I didn’t have an email, I didn’t have [office] help, I didn’t have anything. And there were hundreds of people hoping I could help them.”
Having been a Labour councillor in the area since 2006, Dent Coad was able to utilise her local contacts to get some support for people, however she still feels utterly let down by the response of the parliamentary authorities in the immediate aftermath of the blaze.
Emma Dent Coad speaks at the Justice4Grenfell protest at Downing St, 16 June 2018
“We really had to shout very loudly to get any kind of office. I had volunteers at that point – obviously there was no time to find permanent staff – then we were literally [non-stop], the phone was ringing all day once we had a phone line… We were literally doing casework on our phones for probably two weeks before we even got a computer in the office,” she says.
Dent Coad spent a lot of time in the community support hubs set up for survivors and the bereaved. “Every day I went around all the rescue centres and just talked to people. Most people knew me already, but I didn’t have the means to help a lot of them. So I just took their contact details and kept in contact and kept calling them. And [when] the hotlines began to be set up, which took far longer than it should have, we were sitting on the phone hour after hour after hour trying to link people up with help,” she says. Within two weeks, Dent Coad had 500 pieces of casework from Grenfell covering everything from tracking down missing relatives to helping people who needed rehoming.
In the hours after the Keyham shooting, Pollard worked with local churches, the council, mental health and emergency services and schools to set up a support hub in a local primary school for those who had been affected, which opened the following day. Approximately 300 people witnessed the shootings – including many children – and there was a fear there would be a repeat attack, says Pollard.
“They saw stuff that no child should ever see,” says Pollard. “[We had to make] sure the support services were in place early, that parents who were struggling to understand and process what this meant for themselves, let alone for their children, had somewhere to go straight away. It was incredibly painful and difficult for everyone, but absolutely essential that people had somewhere to go to get help, and to know that it was OK not to be OK.”
A common theme for MPs confronted with disaster is that teamwork with other local services can help enormously. As Ian Liddell-Grainger, Conservative MP for Bridgwater and West Somerset since 2001, says: “No MP can do this on their own and if anybody says they did, it is absolute blatant lies.” Liddell-Grainger’s constituency has been hit by two major disasters in the last two decades – foot and mouth disease in 2001, and severe flooding on the Somerset Levels in 2014.
“You do it as part of a team; you, the coppers, the council, social services, the food banks, the Samaritans, and all the NGOs. It is a huge team effort. Yes, of course I can speak to [then-prime minister] David Cameron, but that’s only as much good as the information I’m getting from others,” says Liddell-Grainger. “People pulled together brilliantly [after the floods]. If you just rely on government, you’re going to fail dismally.”Then-Prime Minister David Cameron (L) with Ian Liddell-Grainger (R) during a visit to flood affected areas in Fordgate, Somerset, 7 February 2014
The second priority for an MP in a crisis situation is visibility and local leadership. That can mean harnessing or being an outlet for the raw emotion felt by those affected. Dent Coad remembers being warned by a senior member of the Labour Party not to join local residents the weekend after the fire, because the crowds were “angry”. “I thought, ‘But they’re my angry crowds. I’m also angry… I’m also one of them. I just have a different role now. I should be helping them,’” she says.
While Liddell-Grainger yelling at Cameron in the street on a visit raised some eyebrows nationally and locally, the Somerset MP believes keeping the needs of constituents at the forefront is the role of an MP. Liddell-Grainger also called the then chair of the Environment Agency, Lord Smith of Finsbury, a “little git,” a “coward,” and said he’d like to “stick his head down the loo and flush” for not visiting the area.
“I went down and I did shout at a few people, and I did bully a few people, and I did threaten some people, yes. But I felt I had to because I couldn’t think who else was going to do it. I couldn’t ask the police to do it, I couldn’t ask the councillors to do it, that would be unfair,” Liddell-Grainger says – and he believes his forthright approach did make a difference in getting the appropriate help.
For Pollard, leadership locally meant stepping back from his front bench role for a month to focus on supporting his constituents.
It also meant bearing the brunt of media attention – Pollard did more than 80 media interviews in the days following the shooting.
In the aftermath of Grenfell, Jeremy Corbyn lent a press officer from the Leader of the Opposition’s office to Dent Coad to manage media requests, something she describes as invaluable.
When you throw yourself into supporting people in need, I think you always use a bit of yourself in that process
The third role is continuing political advocacy – and again, the MPs say cross-community, cross-party work is essential, particularly in gathering evidence to support requests to government, such as extra funding or policy changes.
Liddell-Grainger was invited to attend Cobra meetings during the 2014 flooding in his constituency and worked on plans to remove the water; Pollard successfully secured nearly £1.1m in government funding for community safety and support, as well as additional educational psychologists; Dent Coad continually campaigned for better support for Grenfell victims, as well as the removal of Grenfell-style cladding elsewhere. (Left to right) Chief Constable of Devon and Cornwall Police, Shaun Sawyer, Home Secretary Priti Patel, and Luke Pollard, bring flowers to lay with the tributes in Plymouth, 14 August 2021
Both Dent Coad and Pollard are clearly emotional when speaking about what happened; they, along with their staff, have been traumatised. While both say cross-party colleagues and parliamentary staff showed exceptional kindness, there was little practical support. Dent Coad adds: “What I found so amazing was the complete lack of any kind of empathy from the people we were asking for extra help. I’d seen people die in front of my eyes, as had my volunteers.”
Pollard has also found it difficult mentally. He can describe the entire process of the shooting in vivid detail, he has heard about it so many times from eyewitnesses. There are images of that day that will never leave his mind, he says.
“When you throw yourself into supporting people in need, I think you always use a bit of yourself in that process,” he says. “The experience I had is actually no different than many people in our community who have been helping people quietly, daily, with what they’ve experienced. There are teachers who are having young people disclose things to them about seeing people shot or the bloodstains on the streets.”
While Liddell-Grainger believes dealing with difficult situations is part of being an elected politician, both Dent Coad and Pollard feel there needs to be better support for MPs and their offices when dealing with disasters and tragedies.
Pollard says: “It was amazing how many people stepped up in our community, but also how many different organisations nationally stepped up as well [to provide] people and expertise for the days that followed.” In particular, Manchester City Council used its experiences of the Manchester Arena bombing in 2017 to provide heartbreaking but necessary advice on how to preserve floral tributes and teddy bears that had been left at the scene.
“We as a city will, one day, need to share that expertise with the next place that has experienced a tragedy like this,” says Pollard. “Hopefully what we learnt will help inform them to have a good response – not only what we got right, but also what we got wrong, and what we would do differently again. There’s no handbook for this.”
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