“It was in the darkest of circumstances that I came to be here” – Tracy Brabin pays tribute to Jo Cox in maiden speech
Thank you Mr Speaker for the opportunity to make my maiden speech.
I wasn’t elected in a conventional way and it was in the darkest of circumstances through the loss of my friend and inspiration Jo Cox that I came to be here.
What happened wasn’t only an attack on a woman, family and a community, it was an assault on the principles and basis of our democracy.
That is why I must first pay tribute to all the political parties who did not stand in the by-election out of respect. There will be many occasions when I passionately disagree with them about a whole host of issues, but today is not the day.
I would also like to thank the voters in Batley and Spen, those who normally support my party and those who don’t who leant me their vote this time because as one lady said, with quiet determination “we can’t let them win.”
As the manager of a local bar told me as fringe parties leafleted outside her pub, “that’s not who we are, or what we believe.” The loss of all those deposits on election night confirmed it and I will stand tall against those who’s only mission is to divide our community.
The election result was a victory for democracy and the acts of kindness I saw along the way defined this campaign.
Many in this house came to help with the campaign and they will have seen our vibrant and dedicated voluntary and community sector which shines even brighter than ever before. The cups of tea, the cake, the pakoras and samosas, the smiles and the tears. The people in the polling station who donated that days pay to Jo’s charitable fund. The stories of Jo’s kindness and the quiet determination of our community to not let hate divide us.
So many groups give support, friendship, assistance and opportunities to others. As one woman from the local Salvation Army put it “we have two hands, one to help ourselves and one to help others”. That is the attitude of our constituency. We understand and enjoy our obligations to each other.
One special highlight during the election campaign was the Walky Talky community event organised by leaders of all faiths, Kirklees council and Batley Bulldogs.
People of all faith and none walked alongside each other, chatting in the sunshine from the town centre to the rugby stadium. When it was finished, people didn’t want to leave, hanging around, not ready to let this warm moment of community connection end.
It was in her maiden speech that Jo said “what surprises me time and time again as I travel around the constituency is that we are far more united and have far more in common than that which divides us.” It was true then and is even more the case now.
We will never forget the difference Jo has made and through her legacy, continues to make. She was and is unforgettable. One gentleman from the community reflected, “Jo was a small woman with a big kick”. I witnessed that ‘kick’ campaigning alongside Jo and the community to successfully defend Batley and Birstall’s local libraries.
This was a personal campaign for me. As a child growing up in a two bedroomed council flat, those libraries were my solace and for anyone who is a fan of Ken Loach’s films you’ll notice that more often than not, the turning point for the hero is always when he or she goes to a library to find the information they need. As the world gets ever more confusing and decisions taken about our lives seem further out of our hands, we need those libraries now more than ever.
I also think back to the time when I was six and our local council prevented my family from becoming homeless. Dad had been unemployed for a while, we’d fallen behind in the mortgage repayments so my mum had to hand back the keys to the building society. We would’ve been homeless had it not been for the council who found us a roof over our head.
But that wasn’t an act of charity. It was a combination of political will and solidarity from local and nationally elected representatives. Today there are now 14,000 people on the council house waiting list in Kirklees. Affordable housing is further out of reach than ever and I will work hard to ensure other families don’t suffer the stress and anxiety we did.
As someone with unique experience in the arts as an actor and writer, culture will be of particular interest to me and I know it can be an engine of change for communities bringing regeneration and jobs. Our young people in particular deserve nothing less.
During the campaign I visited West Yorkshire Drama Academy watching many working class kids find their confidence and their voice. I saw myself in there.
When I was a young actor and I went to castings I’d be asked where I was from. When I said ‘Batley’ more often than not the reply would be ‘oh yes, Batley Variety Club!’ The fact that this little club could attract international stars such as Louis Armstrong, Shirley Bassey and the Bee Gees meant there must be something about us that others want! Young people’s futures are more uncertain than ever but whatever their ambitions we must give them hope and belief that they can be the best. We have the power and responsibility in this place to help.
I am determined to use my time in this place to do everything I can for our community – whether campaigning to retain access to local NHS services, pursuing policies to end the need for food banks or doing whatever I can to bring decent jobs and new investment to the constituency. Like so many in this House I want to create a society where everyone can contribute and reach their full potential.
Jo continues to inspire me and so many others every day, as does the dignity shown by her husband Brendan and her loving family. I am among her friends, of whom there are many in the constituency, her trade union and in this House.
I make this speech during a debate on policing so I wish, Mr Speaker, to finish with a tribute to the brave officers of West Yorkshire Police, who reacted so swiftly and professionally on that awful day in June.
A community that could have become over-run with panic, with such a terrible act taking place in broad daylight in the sleepy village I grew up in, was looked after admirably by our police, in no small part because of the swiftness with which they made an arrest.
What happened in Batley and Spen was a violent attack on a member of this house but I’d like to take this moment to thank the police officers themselves who put their lives on the line every single day. I’d also like to congratulate my honorable friend and neighbour, the honorable member for Halifax, for her hard work raising this issue.
I would also like to take this moment to thank you Mr Speaker for your excellent leadership in the aftermath of Jo’s tragic death. Coming to Batley, recalling Parliament, arranging ceremonies and giving people space to grieve and mourn together was a kindness much appreciated by all in this House and beyond.
I am honoured to have the opportunity to do my bit and give a voice to my constituents through this Parliament of ours.
That day will stay with everyone in Batley and Spen for the rest of our lives but Batley and Spen will not be defined by the one person who took from us but by the many who give.