Kim Leadbeater didn’t set out for a campaigning career in the limelight, but the events of June 16, 2016, when her older sister and best friend, the Batley MP Jo Cox, was murdered, “changed that forever”.
Now, with the voice of Jo echoing in her mind, telling her to “push herself more”, she is at the forefront of the national agenda on loneliness as an ambassador of the foundation set up in her sister’s name.
The energy and drive she puts into her role at the Jo Cox Foundation, which has seen her speaking in Parliament, and that at the community group More In Common Batley and Spen, set up in the weeks after Mrs Cox’s death, is commendable. But, she says, she’s “under no illusion” that her incredibly busy new life, which also includes maintaining her personal training business, “is a way of coping”, and she admits to struggling with her new found public role.
“When Jo became an MP, I, along with mum and dad, was very clear, that we’ll support you in the background, we’ll pick the kids up, we’ll provide you with food and money and lifts to the station but we don’t really want anyone to know who we are and we want to just stay in the background”, she said. “Obviously after she was killed, suddenly everything changed forever.
“And I still struggle with that. I have a real issue around my own identity still. Whenever I do anything, I have to think, now who am I today? Am I an ambassador for the Jo Cox Foundation? Am I the chair of More in Common? Am I Jo’s sister? Or am I Kim Leadbeater? Inevitably, I am all four of those things.
“But for now, I am doing my best to work my way through that. I’m under no illusion that it is a way of coping and I think many people who have lost somebody, in whatever circumstances, a way of coping with that loss is to try and create something positive.
“I almost have a sense of moral responsibility to Jo to do something good. She always used to say to me ‘you need to push yourself more, you’re wasted’. I was very happy with my life, I was going to go back to university to my masters degree, but the fact that I can hear those words when I am doing certain things, does enable me keep going.”
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Taking on her sister’s passion for tackling loneliness, and for creating a sense of community, has been something that has come naturally for Miss Leadbeater and her family, who are “very people-oriented”.
She said: “We’ve always naturally looked out for people around us. My parents have always checked on their neighbours. The key thing with most problems, is how you create a dialogue around it.”
Part of that dialogue is creating a “positive legacy” for her sister, both nationally and locally where they grew up around the Batley area, but also tackling more divisive community issues.
“Jo was offered to go for other seats around the country, but she didn’t want to do that, she wanted to go back to where we were born and brought up and make a difference in our local community,” she said.
“We can’t be shy or naive about the fact that there are issues in local communities around division and around cohesion that do need some work on. As much as I have tried to create a really positive legacy for Jo, by doing the Great Get Together campaign and bringing people together, I am not naive about the fact that there are more challenging issues that we need to address as well.
“I don’t want the work that I am doing through the foundation to be perceived as pretending that everything is fantastic, because there are some issues that need to be worked on, and particularly in the current political situation, people do feel more divided than ever and we need to think about ways in which we can deal with that.
“Loneliness is part of this issue around communities, and what sort of communities we live in. If you go back 50 years, you did know your neighbours, and you did feel your kids could play out until it was dark, and there was a much stronger sense of community. Some of that is nostalgia, but actually there’s a lot of truth around that as well.
“We need to look at the reasons why things have changed, it might be technology or social media, it might be that religion isn’t as popular as it used to be. We don’t have as many shared spaces as we used to. It’s looking at all these reasons and thinking ‘ok, how can we rebuild this sense of community’.
“Politically, why do being feel disengaged and that they are not listened to? The knock-on effect of that can be that people feel lonely - or worse still - are drawn towards extremism.
“A lot of what we have done so far, in the sense of bringing people together, has been preaching to the converted, and we now need to reach out to areas where people don’t naturally embrace the concept of More in Common.”
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And how does she feel her sister would see her new role?
“I think she would be two things in equal measure - extremely amused and extremely proud, she said. “I think she would find it crazy some of the situations that I’ve found myself in, whether that’s on breakfast TV, or chairing a local meeting of interested parties who want to make a difference in the community, or in the Houses of Parliament or wherever.
“I think she’d find that very amusing, but she’d also be extremely proud that I am doing something positive with my life, but also as a result of what’s happened.
“One of her friends in Parliament described Jo as the sort of person who had one arm around your shoulder encouraging you, and the other behind your back pushing you forward, and that’s pretty much how she was, saying ‘you’ll be fine’ and ‘go for it girl’.
“I think about her all the time, and what would she want me to do now. She’s always with me, whatever I am doing.”
Great Get Together
This year’s Great Get Together takes place on June 21 to 23, on Mrs Cox’s birthday weekend.
The third annual event, Miss Leadbeater said, gives people the opportunity “to do something positive in their communities”.
“Sometimes people just need an excuse to knock on someone’s door, or to reach out, and once you give people that platform, they really want to do it”, she said.
“Give them the opportunity, and they embrace it. It’s about creating the normality of bringing people together, We do it really well when something bad happens.
“So if there’s a tragedy, like Jo being murdered, or if there’s a natural disaster, or something horrendous like the Grenfell Tower, you see how amazing most people are.
“They come together, they unite and they help each other. I guess the Utopian vision is for us to live like that under normal circumstances. That is the ultimate challenge. I don’t have quite all the answers yet - but I’m working on it.”