The Labour MP Jo Cox, who has died aged 41 after being shot and stabbed in her constituency of Batley and Spen, in West Yorkshire, was a woman who in many ways represented the character and style of the modern Labour party. She was widely viewed as someone who could have been a serious player in the party in the years to come.
Cox combined academic achievement with political experience, but she threw into the mix an understanding of the Labour movement, a profound concern for the issues that affected the country and a personal heritage that qualified her for a career on the frontbench.
Elected to the House of Commons last year, she was inordinately proud of winning in her birthplace. She was born in Batley, one of two daughters of Gordon, a cosmetics factory worker, and his wife, Jean, who was a school secretary. Jo herself worked in the same factory as her father, packaging toothpaste during the holidays, having gained a place at Pembroke College, Cambridge, where she took a degree in social and political studies.
In an interview she suggested that her experience at Heckmondwike grammar school had not prepared her for life as an undergraduate at Cambridge. She readily acknowledged that she had not grown up in a political tradition and she had no understanding of how her birthplace and background would be viewed. “I didn’t really speak right or know the right people,” she said. The experience was quite startling for her, but it equipped her for her future: she would say later that joining the Commons was like “a walk in the park” in comparison.
On graduating in 1995 she took the course of many future MPs by becoming a political adviser. She worked for the former Labour MP Joan Walley, and then after spells as head of key campaigns with Britain in Europe and for Glenys Kinnock, then a member of the European parliament, she joined Oxfam in 2002. There she worked as head of the EU office until 2005, of policy and advocacy until 2007, and of humanitarian campaigning until 2009. In these posts she acquired a view of international politics that would inform the rest of her life and she always spoke powerfully about the experiences she had undergone and the scenes she had witnessed.
Then she became director of the Maternal Mortality Campaign (2009-11), and worked closely with Sarah Brown, the wife of the former Labour prime minister Gordon Brown, another campaigner on that issue. Subsequently she worked for Save The Children and the NSPCC, and was founder and chief executive of UK Women (2013-14).
In the Commons she had established a reputation as an outspoken critic of the lack of a strategic policy in Syria. She believed in the need for a credible policy that protected the civilian population and abstained in the vote on air strikes against Islamic State. She believed that there was a lack of what she called a “moral compass” in British policy. She described the British approach as “a masterclass in how not to do foreign policy” and argued strongly in favour of allowing more refugees into the UK.
Cox was a modern Labour party feminist. She was selected for her seat from an all-woman shortlist and from 2010 to 2014 chaired the Labour Women’s Network. She campaigned tirelessly for women’s rights around the world and was an adviser to the Freedom Fund on slavery (2014) and to the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation (2014-15). In the Commons she was recognised as a woman who could make a difference to other people’s lives and who wanted to change the world to make it a better place.
She nominated Jeremy Corbyn for the leadership last year – one of 36 Labour MPs to do so – but subsequently herself voted for Liz Kendall, who came fourth in the election. She was later criticised for an article in which she explained why she had nominated Corbyn, but not voted for him. It did not damage her reputation in parliament, where she was held to be one of the most popular and potentially successful members of last year’s intake and a beacon for the Labour party’s future.
In the way of people who have mountains to climb, she had pursued such a sport herself. When elected to Westminster, however, her primary sporting activity was cycling to work along the river Thames from the barge on which she lived with her husband, Brendan Cox, and their two children, Lejla and Cuillin.
• Helen Joanne “Jo” Cox, politician, born 22 June 1974; died 16 June 2016
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