“Jo had one arm wrapped around your shoulder while the other pushed you forward.” It’s a wonderfully tangible image – one I often find myself conjuring up - of a woman known in equal measure for her empathy and her energy. She was that rare person who could both encourage and empower, a woman whose activism was downright infectious and whose firmly-held values inspired you, even if you’d never met her, to act.
Jo Cox should be here today. We need her passion and inspiration now more than ever, in this centenary year of suffrage and of women attaining the right to stand, just as she did, for parliament.
She would have participated in all the incredible events of reflection and celebration that have marked this year, stood shoulder to shoulder with her fellow female parliamentarians from across the political spectrum. She would have marched with us, sharing in the satisfaction of how far we have come while refusing to be daunted by the distance we still have to go.
It’s not hard to imagine her here beside us – in her element – but far too difficult still to accept that she is not.
Which is why, on November 21st when parliament marks the centenary of the Qualification of Women Act, the Jo Cox Foundation is supporting 50:50 Parliament’s day-long series of events. MPs of all parties are being encouraged to invite a brilliant woman from their constituency to attend and #askhertostand.
When Jo herself decided to stand in Batley and Spen she didn’t exactly get the unqualified support of the more traditional men in her constituency party. Many of us who have stood for public office know exactly what that feels like. She wasn’t put off, but it took courage and a willingness to confront the kind of hostility that is rarely directed at male candidates. It shouldn’t be like that.
Jo was a proud feminist and she spoke regularly of the need for parliament to represent society in all its variegated glory. The ‘best women’ at her wedding wore the suffragette colours of purple, green and white, and they say she could galvanise a spark of unstoppable action with just a few uplifting words. She inspired through her deeds and not just her words. The joy really did lie in the doing.
Her loss will always be a deep, visceral one to all those who knew and loved her best - but also a deep loss to the thousands of lives that she had yet to touch directly. And so it falls in part to The Jo Cox Foundation – the legacy charity that I am proud to lead - to ensure with relentless determination that Jo’s legacy can and will be a powerful force for positive change. There can be no better arena to make our mark than on the timely issue of the need for a truly gender-representative parliament.
We need to reinforce the support and encouragement she gave freely to others who were considering a career in public life. Her own example will offer many women inspiration and show them how by putting yourself forward you can make a real and lasting difference to people’s lives. But sadly in the two and a half years since her brutal murder we have seen, if anything, more abuse directed towards women in politics. That has to stop.
Women still make up only 32% of our elected parliamentarians. The grand total of 491 elected female MPs in the entire century since we were first allowed to stand is just 50 more than the number of men sitting in Parliament today. We cannot wait another 100 years for gender to cease to be relevant in candidate selection. We must act now so that, as Jo’s former colleague Dawn Butler once memorably put it, we can have an equal number of rubbish male and female MPs.
The Jo Cox Foundation – alongside fearless campaigners like 50:50 Parliament, the Fawcett Society, and the Centenary Action Group – is demanding immediate action from all political parties. Businesses now have to be open about their gender pay gaps, but parties are still failing to do the same about the political gender gap even though the requirement to reveal how many women are being put forward for election is already on the statute book.
To make progress towards equality, we first need to know where we stand. Making this one simple but important change is the least we have a right to expect.
This is about doing what Jo did best: encouraging and supporting other women into a career on the green benches where their experience, their expertise, and their energy is needed. Our ambition at the Foundation is to keep that arm around those shoulders, holding close while pushing forward. Jo is here beside us – working towards a parliament of true equality – still marching, still restless for change.