Judging from the beautiful things that have been said about the murdered parliamentarian Jo Cox, most people had a similar reaction to mine upon meeting her. I walked away from my first conversation with Jo making some promises to myself. I’d work harder. I’d champion the causes I care about louder. But I’d also spend more time with everyone I love. Maybe even simultaneously. Jo was doing it. Jo was making it all look effortless. A politician, a humanitarian aid worker, a mum. Part of her gift was making you and everyone else she met believe that you could do it all, too. You might think you’d be envious or daunted by a woman like that — but I promise you wouldn’t be.
I met Jo when I was working in Parliament for the formidable Harriet Harman, QC MP — the longest-serving woman in the House of Commons. Jo had just been elected to chair the Labour Women’s Network (LWN), an organization that supports women in the Labour Party across the UK with the training and resources not just to reach elected office, but to imagine putting themselves forward in the first place. Jo arrived in Harriet’s office to brief us on her expansive plans for the LWN with Cullin, her baby boy, perched on her hip. Between articulating the finer points she’d pause to kiss the baby.
Our paths kept crossing. When I went for parliamentary selection myself in 2013, I found myself sitting cross-legged on the floor of Jo’s houseboat docked underneath the Tower Bridge. This time I had Lelja, Jo’s baby daughter, in my lap. Jo dispensed advice with complete clarity, willed me on without being pushy, and made me see my strengths without flattering my ego. She connected me to other women through the LWN — and when, despite my best efforts, I lost the selection a few months later, she offered me a spot as a member of the LWN Committee. Our aim was to train and select more women for the 2015 election than ever before. Jo ended up being one of them when she won the Labour nomination for her home seat of Batley and Spen, a proud working-class constituency in Yorkshire.
> I’m proud, too, that in all that time I never forgot where I came from. I want to come home and help fight for the area I know best.
She launched her selection campaign with characteristic clarity of purpose. Her address to the Labour members read: “I am proud that my career has taken me from Batley and Spen to Cambridge University and then around the world. I want every child in Batley and Spen to have chances like that. I’m proud, too, that in all that time I never forgot where I came from. I want to come home and help fight for the area I know best.” When I wished her luck the night before the final (1) in what had been a grueling and personal selection battle, she told me she was fine because she was surrounded by her family.
Jo’s arrival in Parliament was typically spirited. She worked across the political divide right away to support her hometown and bring new economic opportunities there. She was defending services in her local hospital. She set up a cross-party parliamentary group to get more humanitarian aid to Syria. Her election made me reflect on how it has taken us so long to get decent numbers of women in Parliament and how it had been such a struggle for so many of them. Seeing Jo entering Westminster with such clarity of purpose was proof to me that perhaps women don’t have to compromise on the lives we want to lead. She was proof that you could stay in touch with your roots, have kids, be a politician, be ambitious, and never become cynical or lose sight of the values that put you there in the first place.
It was last Thursday, the 16th of June, 2016, that Thomas Mair allegedly shot and stabbed Jo outside the local library where she held her weekly constituency advice surgery. She had served as MP for just thirteen months. Mair reportedly shouted “Britain first” as he attacked her. He has been described as a loner with a history of mental-health problems. It has emerged that he was (2) with far-right causes, including a magazine that is published by a far-right South African pro-apartheid group. When asked to say his name in court after his arrest, Mair (3), “Death to traitors, freedom for Britain.”
The timing of this attack on Jo isn’t a coincidence. Britain voted yesterday to leave the European Union — the most important vote that our country has held since the last time we voted on this same issue, in 1975. It has been an ugly debate. The morning of the day that Jo was killed, one of the leading “Brexit” voices, Nigel Farage, stood in front of a poster with a picture of a vast queue of desperate refugees seeking asylum in Britain with the caption “Breaking Point.” We can only imagine what Jo — a passionate pro-European and lifelong humanitarian — would have thought of this message. The politics of division, playing on fear and insecurity and anger, can only lead to one outcome. As Jo’s fellow parliamentarian and friend Stephen Kinnock said in a tribute to Jo, “When insecurity, fear, and anger are used to light a fuse, then an explosion is inevitable.”
> “When insecurity, fear, and anger are used to light a fuse, then an explosion is inevitable.”
On the 22nd of June, six days after Jo’s death, on what would have been her 42nd birthday, I stood shoulder to shoulder with the other women from the Labour Women’s Network in Trafalgar Square to commemorate Jo. An event organized by the many charities that Jo had worked with in her life came together to host what they billed as a rally of love. Speaking to the thousands gathered, Jo’s husband, Brendan, spoke of the comfort he took from the fact that an act designed to advance hatred had inspired an overwhelming outpouring of love. Nobel winner Malala Yousafzai addressed the crowd, reminding us that Jo’s “message of peace is more powerful than any weapon of war.”
The fact that Jo is gone seems impossible to comprehend. She was just getting started. In her maiden speech in the House of Commons just a year ago, she reminded us that we all have more in common than what divides us. That is how Jo lived her life. We would all do well to hold on to that as we live ours. Instead of thinking of how and why she died, I have chosen to focus on how she lived. The image I will keep in my mind is Jo as she was in our first meeting: paving the way for more women in Parliament and kissing her baby.
*Mabel McKeown is an aid worker and Labour Party activist who worked and campaigned alongside Jo Cox.*