A WORKING class Yorkshire MP said Cambridge University nearly broke her spirit, but realising ‘where you were born, matters’ has more than prepared her for her new life in Westminster.
Jo Cox, Labour’s MP for Batley and Spen, said she was a happy-go-lucky girl with a ‘lovely family and loads of mates’ until her university days, which ‘shook all her norms’.
The 41-year-old was elected to Parliament in May, having spent the previous decade working in some of the world’s most dangerous war zones as former head of policy and head of humanitarian campaigning for Oxfam.
Since arriving in Parliament she’s wasted no time in making a name for herself as a committed activist on finding a solution to the Syrian conflict and early next year she hopes to host UN envoy to Syria, Staffan di Mistura, at the newly created all-party parliamentary group on Syria, which she co-chairs.
Yet the mother-of-two’s years at university were so destabilising, she said it knocked her confidence for nearly five years.
She said: “I never really grew up being political or Labour. It kind of came at Cambridge where it was just a realisation that where you were born mattered. That 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! To be honest my experience at Cambridge really knocked me for about five years.”
Jo grew up in Heckmondwike, West Yorkshire, with 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.
While she’s a keen mountain climber, these days exercise is the daily commute to Parliament by bike from her converted barge moored at Tower Bridge on the River Thames. She lives there with her husband Brendan and her two young children, Lejla and Cuillin.
She said: “Having gone through that experience of being in a Cambridge college, surviving it and building myself up, meant that coming here (Westminster) was a walk in the park, and a lot of the same people are here!”
The conflict in Syria is one of her main campaigning issues and she’s able to draw on her experience at Oxfam to have become an important voice in the conversation around what Britain’s future role should be.
She said: “All that work has given me the grounding for the work I’m doing now on Syria.
“I’ve been in some horrific situations where women have been raped repeatedly in Darfur, I’ve been with child soldiers who have been given Kalashnikov and kill members of their own family in Uganda. In Afghanistan I was talking to Afghan elders who were world weary of a lack of sustained attention from their own Government and from the international community to stop problems early. That’s the thing that all of that experience gave me - if you ignore a problem it gets worse.”
While she abstained on the vote on air-strikes in Syria because she wanted action to also deal with President Assad, not just Isis, she strongly believes Britain should be leading diplomatically. Comments from many sides of the political debate that there is fatigue over Britain becoming involved once again as a global arbiter are unfounded, she said.
She said: “Actually if you talk to quite a lot of people around the world, whether it’s in an Internally Displaced Person camp or in an emergency disaster they often say the UK is a UN Security Council member, a leading member of the European Union, a leading member of NATO, you can make a massive difference and they want us to act.”