It’s easy to get carried away with the events of recent weeks, but today we were reminded of the harsh reality of the democracy that we live in. Jo Cox was only 41, elected last year as Labour MP for the North Yorkshire constituency of Batley and Spen. She was a wife, mother of two children and had the world at her feet. As we’ve seen today, her light burned too bright for some to handle, but some lights cannot be extinguished.
The media often just turn an event like this into a headline, a story, a package. But for me and so many others, this is different. There was something very special about Jo; although she was everything a politician should be – proud, fearless and convictive, she was also bright, bubbly and beautiful. She was “always wanting to listen”, as a constituent of hers described, and she died having just listened to and helped others at a drop-in constituency surgery.
“Rather than becoming known through scandal, controversy and headlines, she enacted real change”
The unutterable words of her political colleagues highlight what an incredible woman she was. In the words of the Prime Minister, “We’ve lost a bright star”. Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn added, “We’ve lost a wonderful woman, a wonderful MP”. Yvette Cooper described her as “One of liveliest, bravest & most passionate MPs”. And the Home Secretary echoed many of our sentiments, expressing how “all of us are united in deep sadness.”
I have never seen journalist Nick Robinson so shaken on television as he was on the BBC News at Six tonight. As he put it: “People like me are paid to find the right words to describe, to analyse and to explain when this happens, but today I find it very hard to find the words. Jo Cox was in politics for the right thing – for other people.”
I never met Jo, but she has and always will inspire me. Having read intently about her, I can confidently say that she was no career politician. Rather than becoming known through scandal, controversy and headlines, she enacted real change, made a difference, stood up daringly for what she believed in – and that was before she even became a Member of Parliament.
“She stood daringly for what she believed in”
The first in her family to go to university, she progressed from Heckmonwike Grammar School to Pembroke College, Cambridge to pursue a degree in social and political science. In an interview at Christmas, she told fellow “Yorkshire lass” Kate Proctor, Westminster Correspondent for the Yorkshire Post, that her Cambridge venture “knocked me for about five years,” having first realised that one’s upbringing shaped how they were perceived.
Nevertheless, she excelled academically and graduated in 1995, going on to study at the London School of Economics before starting to make tracks in politics, feeding the inquisitive political mind that she had developed throughout her education.
She began her career working as a political advisor, initially in Parliament to Joan Whalley, MP for Stoke-on-Trent North, and then for two years in Brussels advising Glenys Kinnock MEP. Meanwhile, she helped found Britain in Europe, a pro-European campaign organisation. But she also had a passion for the world around her; she wanted to improve the lives of others.
She decided to embark on a decade-long humanitarian mission, working for charities such as the aid agency Oxfam, Save the Children and NSPCC across the world in some of the most war-torn countries – areas of which most of us steer clear. She wasn’t afraid – rather, her blazing determination saw her challenge discrimination, suffering and poverty, liberating those for whom every day is a struggle. They may not have heard the news yet, but I’ve no doubt that in the coming days they will be looking to the sky, expressing their gratitude.
Her unique glow came into its element throughout this decade, as her work with Oxfam saw her occupy the roles head of policy, head of humanitarian campaigning, and head of the charity’s European office in Brussels. It was whilst working over a New Year period at an orphan camp in Bosnia that Jo met her husband Brendan, who works for the UN.
Jo then worked alongside Gordon Brown’s wife Sarah on her Maternal Mortality Campaign, also spending four years as national chair of the Labour Women’s Network. She became patron of the GREAT Foundation, collaborated with Bill and Melinda Gates and tackled modern slavery in her role with The Freedom Fund.
Jo stood in her own right, deciding then to embrace her real dream of representing the community in which she was “made”. Since being elected as an MP for a number of quaint but vital industrial Yorkshire villages and towns in 2015, she has stood passionately in Parliament challenging the government on issues such as foreign policy, international development, the refugee crisis, social isolation and early years development.
“We have far more in common than things that divide us”
Committed to improving the lives of all, but particularly those in her constituency, she outlined her remarkable ambitions in her Commons maiden speech last June. She said: “While we celebrate our diversity, what surprises me…is that we are far more united and have far more in common with each other than things that divide us”.
And what a career she had ahead of her. She demonstrated her witty flare in deciding to live between her constituency home and a barge on the Thames, the scene of numerous ‘gatherings’ at which she and her female colleagues would debate.
Jo Cox wasn’t in Westminster for the thrill of it. She was there to initiate real, effective, long-lasting change, and no one could get in her way. As Max Lawson of Oxfam best described her: “Jo was a diminutive pocket rocket from the north. She was as a ball of energy, always smiling, full of new ideas, of idealism, of passion.”
Whether from Yorkshire, the north, a Labour Party member, an activist, a victim of war in the Middle East, a friend, a colleague or a dear family member, Jo was special to us all in different ways. If she hadn’t yet improved your life, she was about to, and was destined to pursue a career in Parliament equally as inspirational as her ever-prominent one in humanity.
Jo is a light that burns on; vibrant, refreshing and endurant. Nothing was impossible to her, but one thing definitely is – her legacy cannot be tainted because, as she might have said it: “Flippin’ ‘eck! It’s a good ‘un”.
Words by Ewan Somerville