Jo Cox was a Labour MP. The shift in tense denotes the horror of what occurred yesterday. For the first time since the murder of Ian Gow by the IRA in 1990, a member of parliament has been killed. That Cox was attacked outside her constituency surgery, the forum where she served so many, enhanced the senselessness of her death.
She was elected just a year ago to represent Batley and Spen, the seat where she was born in 1974. But the tributes to her were worthy of a veteran. They were a measure of how much she achieved and of how much more she would have done.
Some arrive at parliament to become somebody; Jo Cox already was somebody. After working as a political adviser to Labour MP Joan Walley and Glenys Kinnock MEP, she spent nearly a decade as an Oxfam aid worker, serving in war zones including Afghanistan, Congo, Palestine and Sudan. There are many organisations that would have gratefully employed her. But Cox never doubted the position she wanted: MP. “The job I’ve always dreamed of” was how she described it after her election. In an age when parliament is commonly denigrated, it should be remembered why: because it remains the pre-eminent arena for those who want to improve the world.
And Cox did. Her internationalism moved her to establish the All-Party Parliamentary Group on Syria and she ceaselessly championed the cause of that benighted country’s people. In her speech in support of the ultimately successful campaign for the government to accept more child refugees, she drew on her experience to move MPs’ consciences. “In the shanty towns of Calais and Dunkirk, the aid workers I spent a decade with on the frontline as an aid worker myself, tell me that the children there face some of the most horrific circumstances in the world. Surely we have to do the right thing tonight and support the Dubs amendment.”
It was no accident that the party Cox chose was Labour. From a non-political background, she was moved to join after “the realisation”, while studying at Cambridge, that “where you were born mattered, that how you spoke mattered … who you knew mattered. I didn’t really speak right or know the right people.” Labour, a party purposefully founded to give those like Cox representation, was the natural choice.
Her internationalism, too, shaped her decision. “Our party has a proud record,” she wrote in October 2015. “From the thirties and the International Brigades, where thousands from our movement stood shoulder to shoulder against fascism during the Spanish Civil War, to the modern day humanitarian interventions led by Labour in Sierra Leone and Kosovo, stopping ethnic cleansing in its tracks.”
She added: “I don’t believe this internationalism is an accident. Rather, it stems from our ideology, from our belief in equality and justice. Our belief that all people have the same right to peace, justice and prosperity no matter where they live. Where we act (not only stand) in solidarity with those oppressed and marginalised.”
Cox’s fierce awareness of the necessity of power to improve human lives made her determined to achieve a Labour government. It was the seemingly distant prospect of doing so that led her to write a self-critical piece with fellow MP Neil Coyle, regretting her decision to nominate Jeremy Corbyn (who paid dignified tribute to her) for the leadership. They warned that “poor judgment and a mistaken sense of priorities” were “offering the Tories the prospect of power through 2020, 2025 and beyond”.
Jo Cox was a Labour MP. There are innumerable ways in which the parliament and the party she served can be improved. But as long as they attract figures of the calibre of Cox, they will be in far better health than many suggest.