Jo Cox was a Labour MP and charity campaigner whose name has become synonymous with courage, integrity and the struggle for international human rights. Throughout her career, she fought unstintingly against injustice and hatred, and strove towards a kinder, fairer and more tolerant world.
She was born Helen Joanne Leadbetter in Batley, West Yorkshire, in June 1974. She attended Heckmondwike grammar school, working in a local factory during the holidays. She then studied Social & Political Science at Pembroke College, Cambridge, graduating in 1995. Later in her career, she would also go on to study at the London School of Economics.
After university Jo became a political advisor, working firstly with then Labour MP Joan Walley, and later moving to Brussels to work with Glenys (now Baroness) Kinnock, who was then a member of the European parliament. Jo also helped to launch and was head of key campaigns with the pro-European lobby group, Britain in Europe.
Jo spent more than a decade working as a charity campaigner in various parts of the world tackling issues such as poverty, discrimination, abuse and maternal mortality. Between 2001 and 2009 she worked for global aid organisation, Oxfam. With Oxfam, she worked in Belgium as head of the trade reform campaign and was then appointed UK’s Head of Policy. In 2007, Jo became the head of Oxfam International’s humanitarian campaign.
After a lengthy period working in senior positions with Oxfam, Jo then went on to become a strategy consultant for both Save the Children and the NSPCC. She also undertook a role advising Sarah Brown in her campaign to help prevent mothers and babies dying needlessly during pregnancy and childbirth.
In an interview with The Yorkshire Post in December 2015, Jo described her experience of working as a charity campaigner with people in war zones: “I’ve been in some horrific situations where women have been raped repeatedly in Darfur, I’ve been with child soldiers who have been given Kalashnikovs and kill members of their own family in Uganda. In Afghanistan, I was talking to Afghan elders who were world-weary of a lack of sustained attention from their own government and from the international community.”
These experiences would inform and inspire Jo when she embarked on her career in the House of Commons. “That’s the thing that all of that experience gave me,” she told The Yorkshire Post. “If you ignore a problem, it gets worse.” The needs and suffering of others were things Jo could not and would not ignore.
For four years Jo was the national chair of the Labour Women’s Network and worked to encourage more women into public life. She was a patron of Mariella Frostrup’s GREAT Foundation and, immediately prior to becoming an MP, she was involved with the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation and also worked with the Freedom Fund, a charity committed to ending modern slavery.
Having served the international community as a charity campaigner and activist for more than a decade, Jo was selected as the Labour Party candidate to contest the Batley and Spen seat in the 2015 general election. She won the election with 43.2% of the vote. During her maiden speech in the House of Commons on 3 June 2015, Jo took the opportunity to celebrate her constituency’s ethnic and cultural diversity. “We are far more united and have far more in common with each other than things that divide us”, she said. These are words which have become forever associated with Jo, her work and her ethos.
In Parliament, she not only worked tirelessly for the people of her own constituency but also campaigned for a solution to the war in Syria. She argued vociferously for the British government to do more to ensure the humanitarian aid reached the victims of the crisis and for it to use its influence in bringing about an end to the conflict. She also rose above political differences to form and chair the All Party Parliamentary Friends of Syria group.
On 16 June 2016, whilst attending her constituency surgery at Birstall in West Yorkshire, Jo was shot and stabbed by a man who had ties with British nationalist and neo-Nazi groups. He was subsequently convicted of her murder. She died in hospital several hours later, leaving a husband, Brendan Cox, and two young children. Following her death, Jo’s friends and family set up a charity, The Jo Cox Foundation, in her honour, to advance the values and causes for which Jo fought so passionately throughout her life. It has, thus far, raised almost two million pounds.