Five years ago, Jo Cox delivered her maiden speech in Parliament. Kim Leadbeater, The Jo Cox Foundation's ambassador and Jo's sister, reflecting on how Jo's 'More In Common' message is more important than ever.
Five years ago today my sister stood up to make her first speech in the House of Commons. Like many new members she was nervous and keen to make a good impression. While she had no idea at the time, it turned out to be one of the most influential maiden speeches ever made.
When Jo was murdered a little over a year later the speech went viral. Millions of people across the country realised that Jo was speaking for them when she said, “we are far more united and have far more in common than that which divides us”.
Jo was talking about the community here in Batley and Spen where we grew up and where she had been elected just a few weeks earlier. But her words had a resonance for the whole country, just as they were intended to do.
Community meant everything to Jo. And it was the ‘unity’ in community that mattered most. The coronavirus pandemic has shown that community makes us – and we make communities.
It’s easy to pay lip-service to the power of community, and the togetherness it represents, but in the past few weeks (and, yes, it feels likes months!) we have all seen that power in action around us, whether we live in cities, towns or the countryside, and wherever we are in the UK.
Here in Jo’s constituency there is huge diversity in terms of religion, ethnicity, age, wealth and other factors, but we have ALL felt the impact of the global pandemic in one way or another – whoever we are.
Many of us will have lost loved ones, know people who have been seriously ill or are struggling with mental health issues and many of us are juggling a new work/life balance with children to look after, working from home and dealing with lockdown fatigue. For most of us our lives look very different to how they did only a few months ago. And in the middle of all this, people have been showing the ‘unity’ in community in all sorts of new and creative ways.
The Kirklees Befriending Partnership has seen a huge surge in demand and has responded valiantly with trained staff working alongside compassionate volunteers to support those feeling the effects of shielding and self-isolation, through regular phone calls and socially distanced visits. Local churches and mosques have worked in partnership with food banks and a wide variety of community groups to deliver cooked meals, food parcels and medication to dozens of households.
The council has played its part by backing local ‘hubs’ to support the mutual aid groups who swiftly answered the practical requirements of those in need, whilst on-line poetry, Iftars during Ramadan, gardening, baking, exercise sessions and religious services have all helped those with internet access to stay connected. It is truly inspirational to see the community effort where Jo and I grew up, and I know it is replicated across Yorkshire, and indeed the whole of the UK.
At a national level, through The Jo Cox Foundation, we remember Jo each year at the end of June with ‘The Great Get Together’, which has always been a celebration of strong, united, compassionate communities and an opportunity for people to connect with others outside their usual circle of family and friends. This year the need to stay physically distant poses new challenges, of course, but it doesn’t mean we can’t ‘be together’ and stay connected in other ways.
Jo and I were brought up to have a very ‘glass half-full’ mind-set and to always try and focus on what you can do in any given situation, not what you can’t. So for this year’s Great Get Together there will still be lots of exciting ‘events’ taking place, despite the challenging circumstances.
We’ll be having a ‘virtual’ school assembly, an inter-faith community service, a bake off and an online ‘More in Common’ quiz; we have even replaced ‘Cakes on the Cobbles’ with ‘Cakes on the Couch’! The annual ‘Run For Jo’ will also still go ahead, although this year the runners and walkers will be taking part in their own community so they can follow the safety guidelines, and then sharing their pictures with us to receive their virtual certificate.
So, as I remember my sister, the once shy girl, overcoming her nerves to speak up in parliament, I do so with pride, and of course deep sadness, but also with hope for the future. Because, despite what I have been through, I still work hard to remain optimistic.
Yes – we have seen some poor behaviour during the pandemic (and it would be wrong to pretend otherwise) but we have also seen the very best of humanity. I would give anything for Jo to be here to see how brilliantly people across the country have come together to help and support each other in the face of this terrible virus, because she would see just how right she was to say we have ‘more in common’.
But Jo wouldn’t be sitting back feeling pleased that so many more people now understand the meaning of her words. She’d be asking what we can do next. How can we bottle all that community spirit so it will continue to fortify us as we go forward? How can we encourage people to make a habit of the connections they have built up in adversity to enrich everyone’s lives in better times ahead?
The ‘Great Get Together’ started as a moment in the calendar, to remember Jo and unite our communities. Now at the Jo Cox Foundation we are moving from a moment to a movement. ‘More In Common’ groups like the one here in Batley & Spen are spreading across the country. People are finding ways to strengthen their communities throughout the year and to include everyone in their activities, including those who might otherwise feel excluded or isolated.
I will never ‘get over’ my sister’s murder; it doesn’t work like that with the loss of a loved one; and it will be devastating for so many people who have lost family and friends as a result of Covid-19. Every one of them leaves a hole in the lives of those who loved them which can never be filled, only worked around.
But since Jo was killed, we have worked tirelessly as a family and a foundation to generate as much positive action and energy from the most horrific of circumstances. We weren’t being brave or heroic, we just wanted to create something good out of an appalling situation. Now as a country we have the opportunity to do the same on a much larger scale.
And the Jo Cox Foundation hasn’t been working alone in these unprecedented times. We pride ourselves on our ability to collaborate, and to mobilise and amplify the work of others. We launched the Connection Coalition only a few weeks ago, and have been joined by literally hundreds of charities and organisations, large and small, to work together to look at ways to build on the foundations laid by support groups and other networks in recent weeks.
Just as community makes us, stronger communities make a stronger country. The past few weeks have been tough, very tough, but I do believe that while physically distant we have become closer in many other ways. Let’s not allow all of that to go to waste. Let’s move forward with strength, compassion and togetherness, and always with ‘more in common’.
The Jo Cox Foundation's Ambassador & Jo Cox's Sister