Jo Cox was a friend of mine and of my family. We shared an office – two wide-eyed new MPs trying to navigate the strange world of Westminster together.
We were friends before that too. She had worked as an adviser to my mum, Glenys, and we considered her a friend of our family. She lit up any room she walked into, with her raucous laugh and infectious good humour. She was a wonderful mother, doting on her two young children, Cuillin and Lejla, and beaming with pride whenever she spoke about them.
And she cared. She cared about her community and the people she served with such pride in Batley and Spen, where she grew up. She cared about justice for the people she met in war zones and in unspeakable poverty around the world. She cared about everyone she met, which is why everyone who met her for just a few minutes walked away knowing they had met someone special.
My heart goes out to her husband Brendan and their children. I cannot even begin to understand their pain. Just writing these words about her in the past tense breaks my heart all over again.
Jo was more than just a great person to have spent time with. She was a campaigner who believed that with dedication, compassion and no little bravery you could change the world. And if not the whole world then your little corner of it. You could help people. Give a voice to people. Change the lives of people worse off than yourself.
It was that conviction that led her to get involved with Oxfam and other charities, through which she campaigned to improve the lives of the vulnerable and the dispossessed around the world, including in the Democratic Republic of the Congo and in Darfur, where unspeakable tragedies were taking place. In parliament she fought for the rights of child refugees from the conflict in Syria with a doggedness that George Osborne has acknowledged contributed to a change in government policy.
I can only imagine the outrage she would have felt if she had seen the poster that Nigel Farage unveiled just hours before her death, demonising hundreds of desperate refugees, including hungry, terrified children, fleeing from the terror of Islamic State, under the slogan “Breaking Point”. A poster Brendan, her husband, described as “vile” just hours before Jo’s assassination.
She had many other causes too, recently working with Sarah Brown and others right across the political spectrum on what she called the “epidemic of loneliness” in our society. She deplored the toxic environment that was enveloping our politics. The spreading of fear and the pandering to prejudice. Her heart was so full of love that the politics of hate was alien to her.
But the hatred that killed Jo, the poison that has seeped into our politics in recent years, with increasing venom in the past weeks and months, must end.
There are those who say we must “take our country back”, who castigate those on one side of an argument as an “elite”, in the pay of an establishment, in it for themselves and detached from the real world. Those people have to realise that their aggressive words and dangerous rhetoric have consequences. If you try to light a fuse, you can’t be surprised when it catches.
I have never known anyone less in it for themselves than Jo. She cared about our place in the world because she cared about the lives of the real people that she had committed herself to serving. She believed in unity over division, a sentiment she conveyed so beautifully in her maiden speech just a year ago.
And she had been actively campaigning in recent weeks for our place in the world as an open, tolerant and generous nation. Just as she fought for our values as a nation when advocating for refugee children and those caught up in the Syrian conflict, so she fought for our values and place in Europe.
Jo was an internationalist to her fingertips, believing that we can do more good by working together with our friends and neighbours than we ever could on our own. She wanted Britain to continue to be an open, tolerant and generous country that engages with the world with our heads held high, instead of turning our backs on it. She wanted Britain to face the big challenges of the 21st century – from climate change and terrorism to the stresses and strains of globalisation – with our eyes and hearts open and with the strength in numbers that comes from being a part of a community of 500 million people.
Those of us who knew Jo – and the very many who have only got to know her in death – will struggle for many years yet to make sense of this unspeakable tragedy. Perhaps we never will. But what we do know is that Jo lived by the values that define what is best about our country: internationalism, compassion and solidarity, and she was also a true believer in the old maxim that actions speak louder than words.
To secure her legacy we must not only honour the values by which she lived, we must also follow through on them: we must unite and act to defeat the forces of division, intolerance, populism, nationalism and cynicism that have been bubbling under for years, and that have come to the fore in recent weeks.
This will be a long and difficult journey, but we owe it to Jo to make it.
And it’s a journey that starts on Thursday.