What have we come to in this country when candidates report physical attacks and death threats while out campaigning in local elections? Three years ago when my friend Jo Cox was murdered during the referendum campaign the world was shocked. It was rightly seen as an abomination and an affront to our democracy. Yet since then violence and intimidation against people in public life have escalated to a terrifying degree. We cannot go on like this.
Jo’s murder was first and foremost a personal tragedy. A young mum with so much to give, who exuded compassion and warmth, taken from her family and loved ones with unforgivable cruelty. It was also a huge loss to parliament and, more importantly, to the country she cared about deeply and to which she had so much to offer. Campaigning in the EU referendum was immediately suspended. Thousands of people came out in Trafalgar Square, in Batley town centre and across the country and the world promising never to forget and to “love like Jo”. We dared to hope it might be a wake up call that extremism and hatred had no place in our politics and that we could debate and air our disagreements in a more respectful, less aggressive fashion - as she always did.
Have we learnt nothing?
When I first met Jo she was a young charity worker, full of bubbly energy, overflowing with ideas, and already thinking about how she might be able to contribute further to public life. We worked together in the Labour Women’s Network encouraging women to stand for parliament and I was delighted when she asked for my advice after deciding to run for her home constituency of Batley and Spen. She was elected in 2015 and she shone from the first day in the job. It was clear she was destined for a successful career in politics that might have taken her all the way to the top. The Foundation that was set up in her name continues to campaign tirelessly for those values and to help make our communities stronger, our public life more compassionate and, where we have some influence, to make our world fairer.
People always say how proud they are to take up a new post but in my case, as the newly appointed chairwoman of the Jo Cox Foundation, it is unquestionably true – inspired by admiration for my friend Jo and my deep concern for those who have followed her into public life.
When I sat in the Cabinet ten years ago I was the first woman to hold the post of home secretary. Margaret Beckett had recently been our first female foreign secretary. There weren’t enough good women coming forward, willing and able to make the sacrifices necessary to pursue a career in politics at the highest level. Politics was hard fought back then. Women suffered put-downs, jibes and occasional insults. We had to work harder than men to be heard and taken seriously. But there was far less of the bitterness and anger that we are witnessing today. We experienced nothing like the level of intimidation now directed at women in particular, whether on social media or out on the streets.
So the work of Jo’s Foundation is more important than ever. We must tackle that aggression head on. It is a threat not just to individuals, but to our very democracy itself. We must strive to make public life safer and more welcoming to women and men alike. And we must continue to strengthen our communities and push the hatred and extremism that ultimately cost Jo her life to the margins. These are huge challenges but we cannot shirk them. The Jo Cox Foundation stands ready to do all that we can to help meet them. Because it is the right and necessary thing to do, and because we owe it to Jo. It is a responsibility we all share. Politicians and the media must play their part by tempering their rhetoric and recognising that the politics of division plays right into the hands of the extremists. We can all contribute to building the kind of country we want to live in and the future we want our children to inherit.
We can set an example in the way we conduct our own discussions and disagreements. We can call out unacceptable language and behaviour wherever we see it. And we can join others to reach out across communities rather than driving wedges between them. The Great Get Together, held annually on what would have been Jo’s birthday weekend, is a good example of how community events large and small can strengthen the ties that show our country at its best. They can be anything from a street party to a simple barbecue, a sports day or school assembly.
Our website www.greatgettogether.org has lots of idea for what you could do in your own area. If, like me, you’re sick and tired of all the rancour and division that seems to characterise our national conversation at the moment, you can do more than just complain about it. Join us in showing that there’s a different way of doing things.
Jo wouldn’t have stood for what we see around us today. She didn’t believe anything should be consigned to the “too difficult” pile. She would have reached out and built a movement for positive change – strengthening local communities, leading respectful national debate and advocating for a fairer world. I wish she was here to do that herself, but without her we can and must take up the challenge ourselves.
Jacqui Smith is Chair of The Jo Cox Foundation
Original article published in The Times, 7th May 2019.