OUR NEIGHBOURING CONSTITUENCY OF BATLEY AND SPEN is – or rather was – a place where people are not shot and fatally wounded on the street as they go about their daily business.
All that changed forever on 16 June, when Jo Cox MP was killed outside the local library where she held her weekly surgery. Jeremy Corbyn spoke for all of us when he referred to the ‘devastation’ felt by the ‘the whole of the Labour family’.
That Jo did not have longer to spend time with her husband and young children and fulfil her hopes of a better world is an absolute tragedy. She was selected to replace long-standing MP Mike Wood from an all-women shortlist in spring 2014. She was ‘proud and humbled’ to represent the place she grew up in after years of humanitarian aid work nationally and internationally. Party members put their trust in a local girl from an ordinary working class family.
Born in Batley and brought up in nearby Heckmondwike, where she was Head Girl of the town’s grammar school, Jo was the first of her family to go to university, studying Social and Political Sciences at Pembroke College, Cambridge. After graduating in 1995, she went on to the London School of Economics and spent some years as an adviser to Labour MP Joan Walley, before spending two years advising MEP Glenys Kinnock.
A fast track to a parliamentary career would have been the obvious next step for a high-flyer with such connections but Jo chose a different path in line with her core beliefs and passion for social justice. Between 2001 and 2009 she worked for Oxfam and Oxfam International. She became head of policy and advocacy of Oxfam GB, and head of Oxfam International’s humanitarian campaigns in New York in 2007 where she met disadvantaged groups in Darfur and Afghanistan.
It was dangerous work which often took her to conflict zones. She met her husband Brendan, a former executive at Save the Children, during this time.
In May 2015, Jo finally got her ‘dream job’, retaining Batley and Spen with an increased majority of over 6,000. One of her first acts was to speak out for a broader debate in the Labour leadership contest and she was one of the 35 MPs to nominate Jeremy Corbyn. That she did so despite political differences speaks volumes about her generosity of spirit.
Jo had only 12 months as an MP but achieved a lot in that short time. She became a staunch campaigner on issues relating to Syria and staged Commons debates on the plight of refugees. She founded and chaired the all-party parliamentary group, Friends of Syria. Jo was also the national chair of the Labour Women’s Network and a senior adviser to the Freedom Fund anti-slavery charity.
In the immediate aftermath of her death, some pundits tried to suggest Jo’s death was not politically motivated but the act of a ‘loner’ with mental health problems. In a statement issued the day following the attack, West Yorkshire Police confirmed that in their view she was the victim of a ‘targeted attack’ and that alleged killer Tommy Mair’s links to far right extremism were a ‘priority line of inquiry’ in a search for a motive.
As a mark of respect, all major parties said they would not contest the seat in a by-election. But former BNP member Jack Buckby, now a supporter of far right group Liberty UK, has announced his intention to stand.
It will be up to all of us to ensure Jo’s legacy lives on. Or, as Jo’s husband Brendan far more eloquently put it, ‘she would have wanted two things above all else to happen now, one that our precious children are bathed in love and two, that we all unite to fight against the hatred that killed her.’