If Jo Cox’s death was about immigration, then this poisonous debate needs an antidote – and fast

16 Jun 2016




I was in Jo Cox’s constituency of Batley and Spen a few weeks ago, for a job interview at a local school. I didn’t get the job, but I greatly enjoyed my stay and found everyone I met to be as friendly and welcoming as I’ve always found natives of God’s own county to be.



In the months after a general election, it becomes clear who the new “rising stars” of the new intake to Parliament are. The thing with rising stars is that they tend not to be universally popular - other MPs can be quick to judge a new colleague as “careerist”.



From everything I’ve heard about Cox since her election, this was never going to be the case with her.



She was unquestionably a star, but the antithesis of a career politician, someone who was universally liked and respected for her commitment to her principles and her determination to help everyone that she could. The likes of Boris Johnson could learn a few things from her about the real purpose of politics.



When the news of Cox's tragic death broke this afternoon, I was keen not to say anything that politicised her death; to use such an awful event to make points about the EU Referendum or any other topic would have been deeply disrespectful to Jo’s family and her memory.



But to my mind, on the basis of what has so far been reported, hers is a death that says something about our country, and implicitly, our politics. She was attacked by a man who reportedly shouted “put Britain first” before he stabbed and shot her.



If the reported eyewitness accounts are true (and it’s important to stress the police investigation is still only a few hours old), then the murder of Jo Cox seems to have been about immigration, and how our political leaders and media have failed us. Failed to inform us about its benefits as well as its failings, failed to provide the positive case for immigration, failed to challenge misconceptions for fear of losing votes or readers.



I don’t blame working class people in deprived areas for being concerned about the impact of immigration on their jobs, housing or the NHS. I blame middle class people in London who are afraid of even mentioning the word.



Those with power have failed communities like the one that Cox was born in, grew up in and represented as its Member of Parliament, and as a result, an amazing woman who was an outstanding constituency MP paid for it with her life.



This is not just about UKIP or the Daily Mail. The Conservatives and Labour are parties whose leading lights - from Sajid Javid and Priti Patel to Sadiq Khan and Chuka Umunna - are proof of the benefits that immigration brings to Britain. Yet both parties pursued nauseatingly anti-immigration platforms at the last election, petrified of losing votes to Nigel Farage’s party.



Likewise, our media should take a good look at themselves. This is not simply the fault of right wing newspapers such as the Mail and the Express - those on the left in media circles sneer at the right’s obsession with immigration, but where is the antidote from the left? Where is the attempt to change the news agenda on immigration and provide positive coverage of immigrants to tackle the bile from the right?



What will it take? David Cameron’s synthetic compassion as the pictures of dead Syrian children surfaced was not enough to change his party’s stance on immigration, let alone challenge misconceptions about the subject.



A highly well-liked and respected MP has been murdered this week for doing her job - representing the people who elected her. Something has to give.



Earlier this week, I sneered at Jeremy Corbyn for criticising the nature of the EU Referendum and its focus on immigration. I felt it was symptomatic of a man who is utterly lacking in political guile and has no interest in winning elections. I was wrong and I feel ashamed for displaying the same kind of political cynicism that I disparage in politicians.



Corbyn is right to criticise our obsession with immigration in this debate and should be praised (as a leader of one of the two largest parties) for having the bravery to go against the political narrative dictated by both of these parties in recent years.



It is the fringe parties who can hold their heads up in their knowledge that they have talked the talk and walked the walk on immigration, promoting it as something that is of benefit to our country. The SNP, the Greens and latterly the Lib Dems (under Tim Farron’s earnest leadership) can hold their heads high and should be listened to if we are to learn anything from Cox’s untimely death.



The perception of immigrants as benefit-guzzling criminals does not just hurt migrants, it hurts us all. Immigration supports our NHS and it boosts our local businesses. We all rely on immigrants.



As Cox’s husband Brendan put it on Thursday evening, we must all fight against the hatred that killed Jo.



Diversity is what makes our country so great. Jo Cox knew that and fought for the principle her entire life. Let us not simply mourn the loss of a committed campaigner, a wife, a mother, a brilliant constituency MP - but learn the lessons from her death and change the way we look at one of the most important issues not just in this referendum, but for our country’s future.


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