Today would have been Jo Cox’s 42nd birthday. Celebratory events are being held around the world
with the hashtag #MoreinCommon, taken from her maiden speech in Parliament: ‘We are far more united and have far more in common with each other than things that divide us’. My ex-boss Phil Bloomer, who worked with Jo for many years at Oxfam, gave this lovely tribute to an event in Oxford at the weekend.
Jo would have been so pleased to see so many people here today from the many causes she fought for: dear Oxfam colleagues, sisters and brothers in the Labour Party and trade unions, feminists, and the good folk of Oxford.
Jo was one of the most kind, caring, and committed people I have had the privilege to know.
She could also make herself a right royal pain in the back-side if she profoundly disagreed with you: a lesson many political leaders learnt too late, and to their cost.
I first met Jo when she was fresh out of university, when she worked for Glenys Kinnok MEP (at the time, known colloquially as the MEP for South Wales and Soweto because of her domestic and international work). Jo would engage me in conversation as I waited for Glenys – often about the appalling nature of my clashing ties, but always about issues such as the current detention condition of Aung San Suu Kyi in Burma, or the changes happening so rapidly in South Africa. Jo could chat to anyone – even me.
Because Jo loved People: she was cheeky, with a dry, sardonic humour, often aimed at herself. Jo could happily spend hours playing with refugee children in a camp, or engaging rather la-di-da intelligentsia in an international think tank. It’s also why Jo, with Brendan, spent their summer holidays working with war orphans in Sarajevo.
But wherever Jo was, she was always herself. Authentic. I never saw her put on airs and graces, nor speak down to anyone.
Jo was Fearless. Or at least could make herself appear to be when it mattered. In the early 2000s, Jo was in her late 20s, and looked about 17. She had a very broad Yorkshire accent (much broader than mine, mind), yet was unanimously appointed to the Head of Oxfam’s Brussels office, due to the power of her intellect, persuasion, and passion.
This meant regular meetings with the EU Trade Commissioner, Peter Mandelson, and his coterie of powerful advisers. Peter Mandelson, as many of you will know, is a man of sophisticated and urbane manner, who quickly had to adjust his perception and approach to the meeting when feisty Jo, brimming with expert trade facts (many of them provided by people I can see amongst us tonight), gave him a master class in European Trade Policy, and how it must change to benefit the poor of the world.
We laughed together for hours afterwards as we recollected the change in their expressions through the meeting, from warm but patronising condescension, to terror.
Jo could do this because Jo loved Justice. She felt it in her guts. Jo was moved almost too much by the suffering she worked alongside in Darfur, Sudan. Jo devoted years of her life to the plight of refugees.
But Jo also knew how to pressure repressive governments that force people to flee their homes. She organised a visit of eight global women leaders to Darfur: led by Mary Robinson, with African economists and parliamentarians. Jo then organised their tour of the world’s capitals to put maximum international pressure on the regime in Khartoum from Washington DC, London, Paris, Brussels, and Berlin.
And finally, Jo loved Love. Jo knew in her bones its transformatory power. Perhaps because she came from a loving family, and a close working class community in Leeds.
Jo loved her kids with the same furious passion – dashing home from Parliament to tuck them into bed at
night, before dashing back for another late night vote.
And Jo’s politics were inspired by love: when she made her maiden speech that “while we celebrate our diversity, we are far more united, and have far more in common with each other than things that divide us” she spoke to that love.
Jo’s politics embodied the great words of Martin Luther King, also a victim of political murder: “Power without love is reckless and abusive, and love without power is sentimental and anaemic. Power at its best, is love implementing the demands of justice, and justice at its best is power correcting everything that stands against love.” That was how Jo conducted herself as a leader at Oxfam, and as an MP in our democracy.
In this dark hour we live through, Mary Robinson wrote to us from Ireland today and said “A light can shine through when it has the integrity of everything Jo lived for.”
Let’s all make sure that happens.