Two-and-a-half years on from Jo Cox’s death, Batley is determined not to be divided by the Brexit effect
Sitting on the edge of an historic market place and proudly built with Yorkshire stone, it was once known as Batley Resource Centre.
Today, though, this bustling community hub is called Jo Cox House, having been renamed following the murder of Batley & Spen’s Labour MP by a far-right extremist during the run-up to the 2016 EU referendum.
Jo Cox’s death united the country in grief – but there has been no such coming together over Brexit, with the seemingly never-ending controversies and negotiations that have followed the vote leaving Britain a more politically polarised place, according to anti-racism campaign group Hope Not Hate.
So, with just 27 days to go until the UK’s EU departure date, how have the travails of the last two-and-a-half years impacted on Batley, which showed an inspirational strength of spirit and common purpose in the dark days after Jo’s murder?
Yesterday, on the town’s main shopping street, the Yorkshire Evening Post found frustration at the way the Brexit process has unfolded – but also a determination to build on the legacy of selflessness left by its late MP.
One middle-aged regular at the outdoor market that is held every Friday near Jo Cox House told the YEP that he had voted Leave, partly due to his worries over immigration.
He said: “They should have got [Brexit] sorted out by now and there’s a danger it could divide us, of course there is.
“She’s done her best, Theresa May, I’m not knocking her, but she hasn’t had enough backing [from Parliament]. It’s wrong, what’s gone on.”
Another “fed-up” shopper, a woman in her 70s who lives in nearby Birstall, said she supported Leave in 2016 – and also cast her vote in favour of the UK coming out of what was then known as the Common Market during the referendum of 1975.
She told the YEP: “I thought we’d leave in a couple of months [after the 2016 vote], but two years down the line and we’re in a mess.
“We can’t let it drive us apart, though – Jo Cox wanted people to come together and that’s what we should do.”
There were also Remain views to be heard, with one man preparing to book a holiday at Althams travel agency on Commercial Street declaring he had been the first person into his local polling station on the day of the 2016 referendum.
He said: “I was surprised when we voted to get out and I still cannot see what the fuss is about. What exactly are we supposed to be gaining?
“I think Theresa May has got to plough on now and finish the job, with all the money that has been spent, but how is it going to affect places like Batley, Morley and Dewsbury?
“There are a lot of bedding companies round here that do business with Europe, what is going to happen to them?”
Worries about the effect of the Brexit debate on the town were also voiced by the Rev Mark Umpleby, associate priest at All Saints Church, known to many as Batley Parish Church.
He told the YEP: “There’s a real need for reconciliation across the country, including Batley, over Brexit and my concern is for the poorest amongst us who may suffer the most.
“Our faith communities and many other groups here in Batley will continue to play our part in this reconciliation.”
Reflecting on Jo’s death and the now-famous message of her maiden Commons speech, the Rev Umpleby added: “Our communities came together in June 2016 and I think our experiences of coming together then will help us as we face the challenges ahead.
“We’ll continue to learn to live well together with those who hold different views to our own and of course remember that, yes, even with Brexit, we have ‘far more in common than that which divides us’.”
Meanwhile, Jo’s sister yesterday spoke of her determination to help people pull together in what she acknowledges are “very divided times”.
Kim Leadbeater says she has no doubt that the issues around Brexit have created challenges for communities across Yorkshire.
But she and her family have not lost faith in the county’s care and compassion, with planning well under way for the third annual Great Get Together nationwide celebration event in memory of her sister.
It takes place this year on the weekend of June 22 and 23, coinciding with the third anniversary of the EU referendum and what would have been Jo’s 45th birthday.
Kim said: “Despite my concerns about the rifts and divisions Brexit has undoubtedly created, since Jo was murdered, in Batley & Spen and across the county I am proud to call home, it has been the ability of most people to put our differences aside and pull together that has enabled me to keep going.
“The people of Yorkshire have shown my family and I that the vast majority of us are caring and compassionate.
“We may disagree on exactly what this looks like but I hope that by listening to each other and trying to understand different points of view we can work together for the greater good.”