I don’t know where to begin.
Before Thursday last week politics felt vile enough already, with a referendum campaign already characterised by Vote Leave leaflets delivered to every household in the country lying about the possibility of Turkey joining the EU as a kind of dog whistle to racists and Islamophobes.
And then on Thursday Jo Cox’s murder reminded us all that there is actually evil lurking on the fringes of our national political life.
There are not many people who are evil enough both to embrace fascism and race hatred, and even fewer who would take their ideology and put it in to practice by shooting and stabbing a young mum for having the temerity to be an elected democratic socialist politician and care about refugees and community cohesion. But it only took one man prepared to put ideology into savage action to take away two little children’s mother and a community’s democratically elected voice.
The contrast in the quality of the human spirit between the most depraved far right political ideology that preaches hatred for others based on their ethnicity or faith, that seeks out imaginary race-traitors, and butchers them in the street; and the values Jo Cox not just stood for but lived through her work at Oxfam and as an MP – caring for others regardless of international boundaries, fighting against injustice and poverty and persecution – is so wide as to be unfathomable.
Thankfully the behaviour of most people in political life over the last few days has shown the vast majority of democrats in Britain, whether they are Tory or Labour, Leave or Remain, are decent, caring people. As Jo Cox said in her maiden speech, we have more in common than we realise.
But I’ve also seen material from supposedly mainstream people on social media since Jo’s death that has turned my stomach, such as attacks on her husband Brendan for deciding to donate funds raised in her honour to Hope Not Hate. What sort of mentality leads anyone to condemn the widower of a murder victim for raising money in her memory for the cause of anti-racism when she was murdered for being an anti-racist?
We need an honest national debate about migration, national sovereignty and the EU. My great fear is that Labour risks losing many of the white working class voters who have historically been our “core vote” because we fail either to understand their legitimate anger about this issue or to even honestly talk with them about it. If we lose them, the risk as in France and other European countries is they start voting for populist far right movements.
A cognitive dissonance, a complete difference of paradigms has emerged where the vast majority of Labour’s members and middle class voters believe the event or policy that most damaged faith in the last Labour government was the Iraq War, and the vast majority of our working class voters who believe instead that it was Blair and Straw’s decision to allow early free movement of labour from the Central and Eastern European accession countries, a decision made on the basis of the ludicrous advice that only 13,000 people would come.
If you are an ordinary working person who has had your standard of living frozen or sent downwards by competition from energetic, young, well-qualified migrants prepared to work for less than you, while demand for housing, school places and doctors appointments outstrip supply in your local area, you are going to be very open to the hyperbole that free movement of labour is national suicide and the people who agreed to it are guilty of treachery.
Jo Cox would have been a powerful voice trying to find a rational way through this debate, as a dedicated anti-racist but someone representing the kind of constituency which is very much outside the metropolitan liberal bubble and hence unable to duck the tough questions being raised by disgruntled voters.
Labour and Parliament have now lost her voice on this and on all the other issues, from the balance between diplomacy and military intervention, to the plight of refugees, to tackling the epidemic of loneliness in modern society, where she was already making a huge and distinctive impact after just one year in the Commons.
I am convinced she would have played a major role in Labour’s future.
The tragedy of her loss to the causes she would have promoted and battled for is only exceeded by the human tragedy of her loss to her children, husband and family.
What are we to do?
First, redouble our efforts to win the referendum on Thursday. A vote for Brexit won on the back of toxic lies about mass migration from Turkey and posters demonising refugees will unleash the far right and generate insatiable demands for not just restricting but somehow throwing into reverse migration. How, without causing massive human suffering? In the context of an economic downturn of the severity that every serious economist predicts would happen because of leaving the EU, this isn’t a future I want to live through.
Second, be prepared to stick with the values Jo fought for whether or not the referendum is won. A victory for Brexit would be a huge blow to progressive politics in the UK on every level, from workers’ rights to the environment to the principle of internationalism – that we should care about our brothers and sisters in other countries and fight with them for a better future, not compete or fight against them. But losing does not mean we should give up the battle for progress. It will require progressives to be even more stalwart in fighting reactionaries.
Third, however bleak things look for our party, don’t give up on Labour. Any party that can provide a path to parliament for a person like Jo Cox – a young woman from a working class background, elected as MP for the community she grew up in, fizzing with policy ideas, intellectual energy and campaigning zeal for justice – is a party with a future worth fighting for. And the beautiful speeches yesterday from some of Jo’s counterparts and the beautiful way they have written and been interviewed about her show that whilst she was a very bright star, she was part of a galaxy of talent among the younger members of the PLP, not to mention the fantastic councillors and activists we have around the country.
Hopefully the tragic circumstances that have caused a spotlight to be shined on Jo’s values and ideas and sheer hard work for her constituency and beyond will draw an end to the vile abuse of MPs on social media by people on our own side over the last twelve months, and a realisation that far from being “Red Tories” our Labour MPs are decent, committed fighters for socialism and for the values of justice and equality that ought to unite us all.
I didn’t know Jo well – we met way back in 1997 but she was always a friend of friends of mine, rather than someone I socialised with – but I am proud just to be a member of the same party that had such a fine person carrying its membership card and representing it in Parliament.
Let’s keep the faith.