On Tuesday night Yorkshire’s women of 2015 gathered on Jo Cox’s houseboat on the River Thames for a party. These feisty ladies from West Yorkshire were brought together by the MP for Batley and Spen to celebrate and reflect on their first year in Parliament.
I started my job as Westminster Correspondent for the Yorkshire Post at roughly the same time, and have got to know this particular band of women very well. They are a close bunch, all elected in May 2015, and they include the powerhouses of Holly Lynch MP for nearby Halifax and Paula Sherriff, MP for Dewsbury. They are all inspiring in their own way and mother-of-two Jo Cox shone brightly. Her working class roots, her Yorkshire accent, her warmth and her fierce intelligence made her an excellent MP. In just one short year in Parliament there has been much to celebrate and this party thrown by Jo for these fine Yorkshire women was well deserved.
I have met Jo many times, but an interview just before Christmas in the House of Commons stands out. I couldn’t help but be impressed by her journey from Heckmondwike, West Yorkshire, to Cambridge University, the charity sector then to the House of Commons. I was met with a hug - most rare in Parliament I can assure you - and we chatted for an hour about her life over a cup of tea. I think it might have been one of the first times she had sat and taken stock of what she had achieved. Anyone who knew Jo knows she was a tiny woman, absolutely petite, with a blunt brown bob, with a love of bright scarves that always made her stand out in Parliament. You weren’t to be fooled by that diminutive stature though. Sarah Champion MP for Rotherham described her a lion, and I’d agree. She was incredibly fit, and is such a dare-devil she found out she was pregnant with her son while climbing on the Isle of Skye in Scotland.
Giggling, she told me she had morning sickness while abseiling down the Inaccessible Pinnacle or Sgùrr Dearg, to those Munroists in the know. “Which is not the best!” she laughed. In the mountain’s honour she named her son Cuillin. I got the impression that little tale was just one of the many adventurous anecdotes that sprinkled her life and impressed those she met.
Since arriving in Parliament she wasted no time in making a name for herself as a committed activist on finding a solution to the Syrian conflict, helping the region’s refugees and wanting to host UN envoy to Syria, Staffan di Mistura, at the newly created all-party parliamentary group on Syria, which she co-chaired.
When she stood up in Parliament to talk about foreign affairs and international relations people listen because she has rare first hand experience in the Middle East. She spent time in Gaza and that was deeply respected. I once saw her follow Labour MP Hilary Benn during one of the many debates on Syria, and thought she held her own and the attention of the room with much of the same skill as her party senior.
She was always the first to praise Yorkshire and her childhood in Heckmondwike. She grew up with her mum Jean, a school secretary and dad Gordon, who worked in a toothpaste and hairspray factory in Leeds. Her sister Kim works at Bradford College. She spoke so fondly of her family, it was clear to see they were her absolute foundation. After Heckmonwike Grammar School, she studied social and political science at Pembroke College, Cambridge, graduating in 1995. She was the first in her family to go to university.
Her political awakening started at Cambridge and she often said she’d had the sharp shock that where you were born mattered.
She told me in that interview: “How you spoke mattered... who you knew mattered. I didn’t really speak right or knew the right people. I spent the summers packing toothpaste at a factory working where my dad worked and everyone else had gone on a gap year! I had no idea that’s what you did. Or you should travel to broaden your mind or network. To be honest my experience at Cambridge really knocked me for about five years. I just felt like I wasn’t quite up to speed with everyone else.”
“I was a happy go lucky 18-year-old from Yorkshire going out in Leeds having a good time. A lovely life and a lovely family. Then I was thrown into a Cambridge environment where I just didn’t get it. It shook me. All my norms and everything I was used to didn’t feel like they were right anymore.”
But she thrived academically and after university she became political adviser to Joan Whalley, MP for Stoke-on-Trent North, then Glenys Kinnock, MEP, the wife of former Labour Party leader Neil Kinnock.
She then worked for Oxfam for seven years and afterwards joined former Labour Prime Minister Gordon Brown’s wife Sarah on her maternal mortality campaign.
During her time at Oxfam she met her husband Brendan, who is now working for the UN. They spent New Years running a camp for orphans and families connected to the Srebrenica massacre. The spirit of the Bosnian people had a lasting impact and the couple named their daughter Leija, a Bosnian girls name. She was just two-years-old when I spoke to Jo at Christmas.
Politics was always in the back of her mind though, and she decided it was finally time to make the transition in 2015. I could tell it was a complete honour to be selected for the seat where she grew up. She was positively glowing talking about it.
Politics aside she was committed to her young family, and clearly loved her life on the River Thames on her quirky houseboat that overlooks up to the soaring Shard. Her kids absolutely loved it too. And so did MPs - the boat was clearly the scene of some fantastic fun and some all female political chats I would have given my right arm to be privy to.
Her friend and colleague, Holly Lynch MP, described her an an inspiration, and for a young female journalist starting off in the lobby she has been an inspiration to me too. We bonded over our Northern-ness, I related to that feeling of being a bit out of place, and we talked politics and international relations over cups of tea. She made me think I could achieve whatever I wanted to. There are very few MPs like Jo. Yorkshire was very lucky to have her.