Sadiq Khan calls for more respectful tone in EU referendum debate

Sadiq Khan MP

Sadiq Khan and other senior politicians have pleaded for a change of tone in the EU referendum debate following the killing of the Labour MP Jo Cox, as dozens more weekend campaign events were called off.

Both sides indicated that they would take a more low-key and sombre approach to the final days of the campaign, which has been marked by vitriolic exchanges between activists on each side, particularly within the upper ranks of the Conservatives.

The Labour London mayor said the whole country “just needs to pause and reflect” and make sure the debate is not marred by the “climate of hatred, of poison, of negativity, of cynicism” that has characterised it so far.

Campaign events are likely to resume on Sunday and Monday with less than a week to go before voters are asked to make their biggest political decision in a generation.

At the moment, the Labour leader, Jeremy Corbyn, is still scheduled to appear on the BBC’s Andrew Marr Show and the prime minister, David Cameron, on a special edition of Question Time.

Both leaders, and their counterparts on the leave side, will have to tread extremely carefully to avoid accusations that they are using Cox’s death to further their political aims.

Cameron and Corbyn have so far limited their political remarks to calls for democracy to be protected, but former Labour prime minister Gordon Brown became the first to make a link between to Cox’s commitment to a nation built on tolerance and a referendum campaign that has descended into exploitation of fears about immigrants.

Politicians have avoided drawing any conclusions publicly about the impact of the killing on the referendum outcome, but aides acknowledge it could affect the psychology of voters and are grappling with how best to proceed. There has been no suggestion of postponing the vote, because that would require new legislation.

Britain Stronger In Europe, the official remain campaign, said it was scrapping all events on Saturday, including rallies and street stalls. “Volunteers may choose to continue door-to-door leafleting in their own local areas, but the campaign nationally will not be doing so,” said its director, Will Straw.

Labour’s own remain camp also said it was suspending all activity until Monday, with sources saying they were reviewing all campaign material to make sure there were no personal attacks or inappropriate language.

The leave campaign is still reviewing whether to campaign on Saturday, while Ukip called off a countrywide tour with its battlebus until Monday at least.

After months of bitter attacks between the rival sides, a senior remain source said campaigning would be less aggressive than planned for its final week. “This will change the tone of the rest of the campaign, there is no question of that,” he said.

Some MPs also began to suggest that Cox might be honoured by a collective attempt to make politics less vitriolic.

Stephen Kinnock, the Labour MP for Aberavon and a friend of his counterpart for Batley and Spen, said there was a need to “change the tone forever and reflect on what Jo stood for her whole life”. Anna Turley, the Labour MP for Redcar, said it was time for a more respectful tone in political discourse.

Anna Soubry, a business minister, said it would be time to “reset the dial on political debate, comment and discourse” after the referendum.

Others, however, were concerned that political debate had become so toxic that it might take a long time to change. Mike Gapes, the Labour MP for Ilford who has been on the receiving end of abuse on social media, said: “Cameron and Corbyn have been showing leadership and maturity which is what is needed, but it’s got to be long term.

“And I’m worried we’re still not going to get that from some people. We’ve seen the Ukip poster that is similar to Nazi propaganda and this debate has been very aggressive, and I’m concerned that not everyone is going to be mature.”

Powered by article was written by Rowena Mason Political correspondent, for The Guardian on Friday 17th June 2016 18.35 Europe/London © Guardian News and Media Limited 2010