For Jo Cox

I don’t often talk – explicitly anyway – about politics on this blog, but today, I’m going to. You’ve been warned.

The utterly shocking death of Jo Cox last week, felt close to home. I know a good number of MPs, some of them well. They are, to a woman or a man, good people. Each of them, in their own way, brilliant and flawed, sometimes wrong – sometimes spectacularly so. Some of them, I disagree with more often than not. Some of them I admire very much indeed and feel privileged to know.

All of them struggling to live up to an impossible ideal and, in this increasingly argumentative and confrontational culture in which we live, open to swift attack at the slightest hint they may have strayed from whatever ideal one group or another seems to think they have failed to live up to this week.

Mercifully, still most often metaphorically.

Yet, the vast majority of them motivated more than anything else by the idea of public service, of representing, advocating, standing up for what they believe in.

Angry Times?

My wife worked for an MP for almost four years. They dealt with hate mail, anger, threats and abuse. I’ve stood for election, I’ve campaigned for others. I’ve been on the receiving end of a some of that sort of thing as well. And it’s unsettling. You can let it drown out the other voices – the support, the goodwill, the appreciation, the affection, that many people genuinely feel for those that seek to and do represent us.

It seems to me that we live in an increasingly polarised society. Inequality of wealth and opportunity has been on the rise these past six or seven years – and we are starting to see the impact in our national conversation, which is becoming increasingly angry and irritated. Some public figures are fuelling that tone, whilst many others seem unable or unwilling to change its direction. Many people are angry. Life is tough, they’re working harder for less security, less comfort, less reward. They look at struggling public services, retrenching government budgets. They look at a political parties, seemingly more consumed in game-playing and in-fighting than fixing the problems we face. And they feel let down. They want someone or something to blame. The toxic cocktail mixed by the national Leave campaign is giving just that to many people.

Listen and learn?

In my taxi to the train station this morning, the driver and I spoke about the referendum on Thursday. Turns out he’s planning to vote in a different direction to me. I listened as he explained why. He asked why I supported Remain. I told him. He asked me what difference it would make to him and his family, one way or the other. I told him that I thought it would make a huge difference, and explained what I thought that would be.

He told me that he’d had an MP in the back of his cab a few days earlier, having a similar conversation. He’d asked, ‘what does it mean for me and my family?’ and the response had been: ‘it’s not about you and your family, it’s about a collective decision, about all of us being bigger than the individual.’ They then went on to try and explain why. I suspect they lost him at that moment.
And there’s another fundamental problem in our politics – for all of the well-intentioned men and women I spoke of above, too few stop and really listen. In The Audacity of Hope, Barack Obama declares that the most important attribute in political life is empathy – ‘the ability to walk a mile in another man’s shoes’ – and it seems in short supply, often. We don’t have to like the opinions we hear, but we have to understand them and relate to them, feel where they come from, before we can respond with honesty and good intent.

Make your play

It’s easy to say that we get the politics we deserve. It’s harder to say that we get the politics we create. Because we are all actors in the drama – even if we often choose to vacate the stage and either wait in the wings or take a seat in the stalls. Jo Cox was firmly on the stage, making the play.

A week before Jo Cox was taken from us, I had a conversation with my mother-in-law. She announced that she had cast her postal vote and I wasn’t wild about the decision she’d made. But, on reflection, I was really cross with myself. I know that I’ve had the opportunity to influence, in some small way, the outcome of Thursday’s referendum. I also know that I’ve not done a lot to do so. I’ve not delivered a leaflet, not made a phone call, not knocked on a door. I’ve stood in the wings, watching as the story unfolds. Maybe I swung a taxi driver back to undecided this morning. That would be something.

We owe it to the memory of Jo Cox to do better and to do more. If we don’t like the way that things are going, if we think that there’s a better direction, if we want a political culture that treats people with respect, then only we can bring that about.

Joe Hill, sitting awaiting his execution in Utah in 1915, sent a telegram to Bill Haywood, saying: ‘Goodbye Bill… Don’t waste any time mourning. Organise!’

I don’t believe that the former is a waste of time. But I really do think that it should inspire us to the latter.