Five thoughts after the death of Jo Cox, on Friday June 17, 2016…
1) JO COX, RIP
This time yesterday, Jo Cox was alive. And for anyone who met her, it’s difficult to believe she’s not still here.
Her irrepressible good humour, her cheery hellos and mischievous smile, as well as her impassioned dedication to others, were her trademarks as she went about her business in Parliament and outside it.
“Passionate, compassionate and loyal”. Those were the words she told HuffPost her best friends would most use to describe her. And she was certainly all three.
Her husband Brendan, like Jo a young veteran of the international development world (they met while at Oxfam and both worked for Gordon and Sarah Brown), paid her the most marvellous tribute in that short statement yesterday afternoon. And his words rightly make most front pages today. “Jo believed in a better world and she fought for it every day of her life with an energy, and a zest for life that would exhaust most people.”
On Tuesday night, she and a clutch of her closest colleagues in Parliament were on the Coxes’ Dutch barge houseboat near Tower Bridge, taking a break from the In campaign, and there was an ‘end of term’ feeling for these classmates of 2015. She was on typically sparky, warm-hearted form.
Today, that spark has gone and her death has shocked politicians right across the world. Hillary Clinton and Justin Trudeau paid tribute, as did former US congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords, who herself survived an assassination attempt in 2011. “Absolutely sickened to hear of the assassination of Jo Cox. She was young, courageous, and hardworking. A rising star, mother, and wife,” she said.
Nathan Cullen, a member of the Canadian Parliament, broke down as he paid tribute last night. Watch his moving words HERE. Emma Pyke, Cullen's assistant, told The Huffington Post Canada that he first met "the amazing Jo Cox" about three years ago at a leadership conference near Washington, D.C. And she explained just how Jo had decided to opt for full-time politics. “At the time, Jo was contemplating whether to run or to start a NGO," Pyke said. "By the time they left the conference, she’d decided to run. Jo and Nathan remained in touch since then."
There were some fine tributes here too, especially Jeremy Corbyn’s perfectly pitched words at last night’s vigil in Parliament Square. The number of flowers, candles and other messages of love and goodwill will surely grow during today, opposite the building where she carried out her public service.
George Osborne last night cancelled his Mansion House speech but in his own tribute was all the more powerful for his recognition that Jo’s work had actually changed Government policy - the very reason she swapped charity work for politics. Without specifically naming the decision to take in 3,000 child refugees, his message seemed clear: “Jo fought to help the refugees from the Syrian civil war – she gave a voice to those whose cry for help was not being heard. It changed attitudes and I know it contributed to a change in policy.”
In an interview with HuffPost last year, Jo was asked what one thing she would change about UK politics if she could. “A more consensus style of politics looking at problems and getting the best brains involved in them to find solutions,” she replied. Let’s hope that everyone involved in politics will remember that today and in coming days.
2) EU REFERENDUM IMPACT
Brendan Cox’s statement included a heartfelt vow “to fight against the hate that killed Jo.” It’s just too early to know for sure what motivated her killing, or what shaped the hatred her husband talked of.
The Daily Star last night headlined its splash “MP Dead After Attack By Brexit Gunman”, but it was the only paper to make any direct link between Jo’s death and her pro-EU views.
Other seemed to jump to swift conclusions. Hillary Clinton tweeted: ”It is cruel and terrible that her life was cut short by a violent act of political intolerance”. Dimitris Avramopoulos, the EU Commissioner for Migration, tweeted Jo had been “murdered for her dedication to European democracy and humanity. Extremism divides and nourishes hatred”,
Twitter was alight with a controversy over some papers’ decision to describe the arrested man as a “crazed loner”. Was similar care taken with the killers of Lee Rigby, or the Leytonstone knife attacker, some wanted to know. And changes to Alex Massie’s article in the Spectator sparked another set of angry exchanges.
With the announcement of Jo’s death barely hours old, I couldn’t help feeling that we were yet again in the kind of frenzied debate that she so deplored. Is it too much to hope that everyone can just dial down the rhetoric, not just in the days leading to next Thursday’s EU referendum, but for some time thereafter?
As for the rival In and Out campaigns, everyone is rightly wary of being accused of trying to politicise Jo’s death, in any way. If the killer did indeed have a political motive, we should know. But it’s unlikely we can be sure so soon, unless there is very clear evidence.
There is a wider point here. For too long, MPs have been treated by many not as public servants but as self-servants. While the expenses affair was deservedly exposed, “MPs’ snouts in the trough” has become a corrosive catch-all. And the hysteria of much of our political discourse has been as bad in print as it has online.
Cynics will say I and my fellow political reporters defend politicians because we've become too close to them. Being close to them doesn't mean you give them an easy ride, far from it. But after nearly 20 years working in the Commons, I can tell you this place has plenty of people dedicated to public service in a way that gets little recognised. Maybe the #thankyourMP hastag will provide a brief respite, but I'm not optimistic.
For years, the left derided Tory MPs as uncaring at best, evil at worst. And the right derided Labour MPs as spendthrift or unpatriotic. Too many in the media - and the ‘non mainstream media’ - prefer cynicism to legitimate scepticism. Maybe all sides can see that actually questioning your opponent’s motives is an impoverished, miserable form of politics and that there’s much common ground. The common ground that Jo Cox so desperately wanted to see, to effect real change.
3) SYRIAN TRIBUTES
The Syria Solidarity UK campaign yesterday issued their own response to Jo’s death. They have been working closely with her ever since she arrived at Westminster in 2015. I print their statement in full:
“As a newly elected MP, Jo Cox has been making a remarkable and unique contribution to changing the understanding of Syria in British politics. By reaching out to MPs and peers across parties, she has helped shift the issue of Syria away from partisan stalemate. Her strong advocacy of clear policy options focused on civilian protection has provided a humane and intelligent alternative to both the isolationist and the narrow counterterrorist tendencies in the UK’s policy debates on Syria.
“The work is not yet finished. We know there is much more Jo wants to see done. We very much hope that we will continue to have her with us in the struggle for a free and peaceful Syria.”
On Syria as on everything, Jo wanted nuance and a recognition of the complexity of the situation, combined with a determination to make a difference. She abstained on the vote on UK military action because she felt it was not part of a coherent diplomatic plan. In her HuffPost blog, she set out her distance from both the “something must be done brigade” demanding airstrikes and the “nothing can be done sect” who dislike all military action. “Both extremes are completely unhelpful,” she wrote. Unlike many, she didn’t take her eye off Syria after the vote, and demanded humanitarian corridors and air drops.
Next week is World Refugee Day, on June 20. The European Commission has started a campaign with the support of football stars such as Belgium’s Marouane Fellaini. The aim is to raise awareness of the perils facing the 60 million displaced people worldwide and the support they need and are getting.
BECAUSE YOU’VE READ THIS FAR…
Today’s video is a selection of Jo Cox’s own interventions in the House of Commons
4) THAT FARAGE POSTER
Boris Johnson moved swiftly yesterday to distance both himself and Vote Leave from the UKIP poster's queue of mostly non-white migrants (or where they refugees?), and the slogan “Breaking point: the EU has failed us all.”
A defiant Farage unveiled the billboard to reporters. “This is a photograph – an accurate, undoctored photograph – taken on 15 October last year following Angela Merkel’s call in the summer and, frankly, if you believe, as I have always believed, that we should open our hearts to genuine refugees, that’s one thing.
“But, frankly, as you can see from this picture, most of the people coming are young males and, yes, they may be coming from countries that are not in a very happy state, they may be coming from places that are poorer than us, but the EU has made a fundamental error that risks the security of everybody.”
But Boris, who has been praised increasingly by Farage in recent weeks, insisted he poster was “not our campaign” and “not my politics”.
And those certainly weren’t the politics of Jo Cox. Again, on this issue she sought to make a calm, compassionate case. In a piece for her local paper, the Yorkshire Post, just seven days ago she wrote that Brexit was not the answer to concerns about immigration.
“It’s fine to be concerned about immigration – many people are. This doesn’t mean to say they are racist or xenophobic – they are simply concerned about pressures on GP surgeries or schools, or how once familiar town centres are changing, or whether they’ll be able to compete with migrant workers to get a job. Most people recognise that there are positive sides of migration too. But I strongly believe that concerns about immigration – as legitimate as they are – are not a reason to vote for Brexit….”
5) TOOTING BY-ELECTION
Junior doctor Rosena Allin-Khan more than doubled Labour’s majority in the Tooting by-election, winning by a margin of 6,357 votes. But there was no applause when the result was announced, only thoughts for another colleague.
Allin-Khan didn’t make the usual victory speech, instead paying tribute to Jo Cox. "Jo's death reminds us that our democracy is precious but fragile - we must never forget to cherish it. Thousands of people voted today and we are all here in recognition of our democratic values.”
Labour MP Tulip Siddiqi tweeted: “Congratulations to Rosena for winning Tooting. What an absolute tragedy that she won't be Labour's 100th woman in Parliament. Devastating.”
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