NOW the General Election has been called, the pre-Christmas campaigning will soon begin. If the past three-and-a-half years since the Brexit referendum are anything to go by, it will be a tumultuous affair. A lot is at stake and democracy quite rightly involves a clash between strongly-held opinions.
In the middle of all the door-knocking, discussion and debates, I do hope that everyone – from politicians to journalists to voters – will take a moment to consider the importance of conducting themselves in a respectful and civilised manner.
It was during the 2016 referendum campaign that my sister Jo Cox was brutally murdered. It still feels unreal to see those words in black and white. The political climate at that time felt pretty toxic but I think it’s fair to say that things have got significantly worse since then.
The way some of the debate is conducted is now far more aggressive. And the level of abuse and intimidation towards those in public life has increased.
There are many reasons for this, but I would argue that some people in positions of power and responsibility should recognise that at times their behaviour has also left a lot to be desired.
This election should be the moment to draw a line under all of that. We cannot afford another, yet more toxic campaign.
At the Jo Cox Foundation, we are doing what we can to avoid that through the development of a Joint Standard of Conduct – not just for this election, but for all campaigns.
In partnership with the Committee on Standards in Public Life (CSPL), we have written to Boris Johnson, Jeremy Corbyn and the other party leaders asking them to agree to a Joint Standard of Conduct to help protect election candidates and agree a responsible framework for legitimate public debate.
In a letter to the leaders of all parties represented at Westminster, Jacqui Smith, a former Home Secretary and Chair of the Jo Cox Foundation, and Lord Evans, Chair of the CSPL, said: “Tackling intimidation is a cross-party issue; the abuse and intimidation we are witnessing knows no political boundaries.
“In light of the heightened events in Parliament last week, we are writing to you today as a matter of urgency to request your commitment in principle to the Joint Standard of Conduct; to undertake to uphold the Joint Standard alongside your party’s existing internal framework; and to do all in your power to facilitate the mutual agreement of the terms of the Joint Standard before the next general election.”
The team from Jo’s Foundation has been having meetings with leaders from across the political spectrum. They have made a lot of progress, although it’s fair to say that some parties have been more eager to engage than others.
The Standard is not yet agreed but in my view it must be finalised before the election campaign proper begins next Wednesday. This will help to ensure that proceedings are carried out in a respectful and civilised manner. There are of course no guarantees, but I, for one, sincerely believe it would make a big difference.
For most of us, this Christmas won’t be about politics, though. Nor should it be. Which is why here at The Jo Cox Foundation we will also be engaging people across the country in The Great Winter Get Together campaign with the hashtag #mincepiemoments. Once again we’ll be encouraging people to reach out to those who may be lonely or socially isolated over the winter months and festive period.
It heartens me that, away from Westminster, Jo’s legacy remains strong and powerful. The More in Common group of volunteers in Batley & Spen continue to inspire me with their unfailing commitment to the local community.
And I recently spoke at an event in Harrogate where people were literally queuing up to tell us about their plans for The Great Get Together in June 2020. Across the country, so many friendships have been formed and bridges built in Jo’s name. Some politicians could do to take a look at how hard many ‘normal people’ work, often on a voluntary basis, to unite people. They might like to think about how they can do likewise.
The coming months may be challenging, but I am actually kind of looking forward to seeing some robust debate and passionate campaigning (hopefully based on facts rather than scaremongering or bluster) as the various parties canvass for our precious votes.
However, as I have said on many occasions now, just as people in positions of responsibility have a duty to behave responsibly, so the rest of us also have a responsibility to respect the complexity and magnitude of the situation we are currently in.
We need to remember that politicians are also human beings with families and loved ones, just like us. Whatever our views about the best way to move the country forward and heal the divisions we face, I hope we can all remember this.
Christmas is traditionally about families and communities coming together. It still can be. But only if we approach the election in the right spirit, as Jo would have done. Strong families, like strong communities, have their differences but they respect and love one another all the same. They stick together because it’s simply better that way. That’s what will be guiding me over the next few weeks and I hope you’ll join me in that positive endeavour.
* For more information on the work of The Jo Cox Foundation please visit www.jocoxfoundation.org – and www.greatgettogether.org for The Great Winter Get Together. For information on the local work of More in Common, Batley & Spen, please visit www.moreincommonbatleyandspen.co.uk
* Kim Leadbeater is Ambassador for The Jo Cox Foundation; Chair, More In Common, Batley & Spen, and sister of Jo.