“We must never let terrorism divide us.”
That was the uncompromising message from shadow home secretary Yvette Cooper on a pre-election visit to Chester hosted by the city's Labour parliamentary candidate Chris Matheson.
Ms Cooper, who is married to shadow chancellor Ed Balls, came to the city’s Quaker Meeting House, Frodsham Street, where she took part in a Q&A session with a group which included local Labour Party members.
Speaking to journalists afterwards, she talked about her stance in the wake of the terrorist atrocities in Paris and our duty to defend free speech but also the need to stand united as a community.
She said: “I would support ‘Je suis Charlie’ but it’s also become a broader campaign, hasn’t it. It’s ‘Je suis Charlie’, ‘Je suis Juif’, ‘Je suis Flic’, ‘Je suis Ahmed’. I think it’s been very powerful to see millions march in Paris and people stand together to defend free speech and to defend security.
“One of the police officers, a French muslim, who was killed, his brother said very powerfully that Islam is a religion of peace and his brother had been killed by people who were perverting religion.”
She added: “We must never let terrorism divide us. They want to pit one against the other and we have to show that we must not be divided and we must stand firm against that hatred.”
Ms Cooper denied a tiny minority of young muslims had been radicalised by Labour-backed wars against Islamic countries Iraq and Afghanistan, adding: “Those terrorists need to take responsibility for their own actions.”
Turning to more ever day matters, Ms Cooper said: “I think when Labour was in government one of the most important things we did was to put a real focus on neighbourhood policing to get police out of the cars, on the streets, working with communities.
“We saw the long term impact of that in terms of overall crime falling, anti-social behaviour falling and I’m worried now about what’s happening with the scale of the cuts to policing which means we are now seeing police being withdrawn from the beat, being pushed back into their cars and this is undermining that precious neighbourhood policing for the future.”
And the MP highlighted that Cheshire Constabulary was among forces criticised for ‘crimes not being recorded properly’ which raised ‘serious questions about what was really happening’.
She argued abolishing police and crime commissioners like Cheshire’s Tory PCC John Dwyer would save £50m which could be used to protect the jobs of 1,000 police officers.
Among the issues pinpointed by the audience were legal highs, immoral bankers not being prosecuted, social landlords not tackling root causes of anti-social behaviour, cuts to council community wardens, the need for closer partnership working and pressure on magistrates’ courts.
Audience member Kath Stephenson was concerned about the loss of a specialist substance misuse service for victims of domestic violence and the closure of a Chester hostel for women and their children escaping violence, as part of a council shake-up of how provision is delivered. She said this was ‘asking for trouble but also asking for a lot of unhappiness’.
Ms Cooper, who appeared taken aback, responded: “I think every area needs support, needs sanctuary, for people who need to leave an abusive relationship and need that haven.”
Speaking later, she told reporters Labour would bring in national standards around the way domestic abuse cases and sexual offences are handled.
She added: “We also want to see more action on prevention so, for example, we should have compulsory sexual relationship education in our schools, teaching zero tolerance of violence in relationships from the very beginning. There has been some evidence of growing violence among teenage relationships, well, that’s terrible, because it means the next generation will see growing problems.”
Addressing Ms Cooper in his concluding remarks, Labour candidate Mr Matheson, from Hoole, said: “Just listening to you, listening to your very honest answers and the straight answers you have given, I get a sense of your understanding around the problems people are facing in their communities. It might not be headline-grabbing issues but low level, persistent, anti-social behaviour has a real corrosive effect on people’s lives.”