Yesterday saw the shocking murder of a woman in an ordinary, crowded British street in broad daylight. A parliamentarian stabbed and shot outside a public library. These things are not supposed to happen in our country. But what of the woman who lost her life? The politician?
We’ve learned a lot about Jo Cox in the last few hours. At least, I have. This time yesterday I probably wouldn’t have recognised her name without a fair bit of prompting. She made enough of an impact in her year in office for me to have some sense of her existence, but no more than that. It’s not her fault, nor mine, nor yours. Politicians. We don’t tend to think too much about them in the round.
But we should. For their sake, and for ours.
It’s very easy, especially after the expenses scandal, to caricature MPs as duck-house owning, moat-cleaning, porn-subscribing spongers, remote from the real lives of their constituents. This is not the time or the place to analyse the causes and consequences of that episode, but it did toxify voter cynicism about the motives and the experiences of the political class. Yet a good MP is very likely to be different from her (or his) constituents.
Jo Cox is a case in point. Born in the constituency, her West Yorkshire accent still intact, and by all accounts warm and approachable, Jo Cox was in reality most unlike the vast majority of her constituents. Although the first in her family to graduate from university, something fairly typical of her generation, she was otherwise untypical in her pursuit of a career in the field of humanitarian aid work, both on the front line, and in the slipperier business of political lobbying.
Such work meant things which to most of us look improbable and glamorous. Flying to exotic or dangerous locations, having international politicians’ numbers in your phone, being on first name terms with the powerful and influential, and having the huge self-confidence to argue your case in the highest places. Not many people living in Batley and Spen have jobs like that.
When I first went north to live and work, there were still some coal mines left. Labour MPs in the region back then were nearly always men who had worked in the industries that underpinned their constituencies – miners, steelworkers, shipbuilders. No one suspected those men of swapping the pigeon loft for a duck house.
Yet they were, in their own way, also as unlike their constituents as Jo Cox was. University wasn’t an easy or obvious route for a bright young person in the past. But the organised working class had their own higher education system. Trades unions were vehicles for learning. They talent-spotted, singling out the brightest for office, sending them on the many courses which shop stewards and other ranks of leadership required. And there was Ruskin College, and Northern College, and other formal places of learning. Moreover, getting out of the pit, and on to the train to London for a meeting at the TUC was also pretty glamorous in its day. I’m sure many an up-and-coming young trades unionist from Batley and Spen once walked through the streets of Bloomsbury with a growing sense that one day they might make it to Westminster.
The point is this. A good politician understands and can connect with the lived experience of their constituents, but in other ways it may be best if they are exceptional people. Exceptionally hard-working, exceptionally analytical, exceptionally articulate. These gifts in the individual are then put at the service of those whom they represent.
The Jo Cox I learned about yesterday was the modern incarnation of the best sort of politician. These are dark times, with deeply unpleasant undercurrents to our political expression. The antidote to the nastiness must be people like Jo Cox.
Let us value, and praise, the good politician.