Support 100 years of independent journalism.

  1. Politics
16 June 2016updated 27 Jul 2021 12:23pm

Jo Cox MP, 1974-2016: The kind-hearted campaigner who lived on a houseboat

Jo Cox, the MP for Batley and Spen, has died following an attack in her constituency. In her short time in Parliament, she campaigned for Palestine and Syria. 

By Anoosh Chakelian

Under a glorious blue sky above the Thames, Jo Cox will be remembered squinting in the sunshine and sporting her mischievous smile. This was the photograph published on social media by her husband, Brendan, in the afternoon of 16 June, as Britain waited to find out the fate of the young Labour MP who had been stabbed and shot in her constituency.

In the picture, she poses beside her London home – a converted old Dutch barge moored on the river, where she lived with her husband and two young children, Lejla and Cuillin. The quirky residence hinted at her adventurous nature; she once answered “I climb mountains” when asked what she does to relax.

Cox was killed in the early afternoon, outside a constituency surgery in Birstall Library. Her life was cut short while serving the people she was elected to represent just a year ago, in her home constituency of Batley and Spen. She was born in the West Yorkshire town of Batley, and raised in nearby Heckmondwike – a ten-minute drive from the crime scene.

As a new MP, she once reflected in a local newspaper column about her most treasured childhood memory; a weekly Saturday morning shopping trip with her Grandad Arthur. “The outing always included two Eccles cakes and an iced finger, a paper and endless chats with what at the time seemed like the entire population of our busy little town,” she wrote.

She graduated in 1995 from Cambridge University, an experience she found tough as a student from working-class roots. Her father worked at a factory, and she had spent a few summers there packing toothpaste. “At Cambridge . . . it was just a realisation that where you were born mattered, that how you spoke mattered… who you knew mattered,” she told the Yorkshire Post.

Sign up for The New Statesman’s newsletters Tick the boxes of the newsletters you would like to receive. A weekly newsletter helping you fit together the pieces of the global economic slowdown. Quick and essential guide to domestic and global politics from the New Statesman's politics team. The New Statesman’s global affairs newsletter, every Monday and Friday. The best of the New Statesman, delivered to your inbox every weekday morning. The New Statesman’s weekly environment email on the politics, business and culture of the climate and nature crises - in your inbox every Thursday. Our weekly culture newsletter – from books and art to pop culture and memes – sent every Friday. A weekly round-up of some of the best articles featured in the most recent issue of the New Statesman, sent each Saturday. A newsletter showcasing the finest writing from the ideas section and the NS archive, covering political ideas, philosophy, criticism and intellectual history - sent every Wednesday. Sign up to receive information regarding NS events, subscription offers & product updates.

But in her characteristically plucky style, she used her experience there to prepare her for taking on the Commons. She called Westminster a “walk in the park” compared to her university days – “a lot of the same people are here!”

Cox, who was 41, quickly gained a reputation in Westminster as a campaigning MP who was unafraid to speak her mind. Before her election, she had already carved out an impressive career in international development, working for Oxfam for a decade in some of the world’s most dangerous conflict zones as head of policy and head of humanitarian campaigning.

Content from our partners
Small businesses can be the backbone of our national recovery
Railways must adapt to how we live now
“I learn something new on every trip"

When recalling her work overseas, Cox spoke of women she met who had been raped in Darfur, of encountering child soldiers in Uganda, and hearing from Afghan civilians desperate for help from the global community.

Her time at Oxfam gave rise to her focus on foreign affairs. In Parliament, she campaigned for Palestinian statehood and served as co-chair of the all-party parliamentary group on Syria. She repeatedly called on David Cameron to develop a “holistic plan” to deal with both the so-called Islamic State and Bashar Al-Assad.

Cox recently backed the amendment to the Immigration Bill tabled by Lord (Alf) Dubs for the UK to accept 3,000 child refugees trapped in mainland Europe. She told the Commons: “Those children have been exposed to things no child should ever witness, and I know I would risk life and limb to get my two precious babies out of that hellhole.”

She abstained in the vote for air strikes in Syria.

Another choice she had to make soon after being elected was who she would back as a new leader of her party. She was one of the 35 MPs who nominated Jeremy Corbyn for the Labour leadership – though she ultimately voted for Liz Kendall, and has since spoken out against what she viewed as Labour’s “weak leadership, poor judgment and a mistaken sense of priorities”.

More recently, she had been campaigning hard to keep Britain in the European Union. Her husband and children managed to enjoy what has been a difficult and often dry political battle just yesterday – they were pictured jetting across the Thames in a speedboat with an “In” flag. Cox had also been planning her 42nd birthday party to take place on her barge next week. A joy snatched away from her family and friends, as a respected campaigner is stolen from British politics for doing her duty.