Promises made after Jo Cox’s murder are being forgotten as politics gets more poisonous: Andrew Vine

TOMORROW is a grim anniversary – five years since the murder of Batley and Spen MP Jo Cox.

This week marks the fifth anniversary of the murder of the then Batley and Spen MP Jo Cox.
This week marks the fifth anniversary of the murder of the then Batley and Spen MP Jo Cox.

Our thoughts should be with her loved ones. However many years pass, the loss of a mother, wife, sister, daughter and friend in such horrifically cruel circumstances as those of June 16, 2016 remains heartbreaking.

There will be a happier recollection of all Jo Cox stood for later this week, with this year’s Great Get Together, founded in her memory, when from Friday to Sunday people celebrate what they have in common.

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It’s a powerful reminder that efforts need to be made to counter the all-too-familiar divisions and rancour that are part of everyday debate. From the torrent of bile that is a feature of social media, Twitter in particular, to the rancorous tone of politics, this is an anniversary that underlines how far we still have to travel towards returning civility to the way the country speaks to each other.

A show of unity by David Cameron and Jeremy Corbyn, plus other political leaders, when they visited Batley in the immediate aftermath of Jo Cox's murder five years ago.

In the immediate aftermath of Mrs Cox’s death, there were pledges from across the political spectrum to do just that, and they were undoubtedly sincere.

The shock amongst politicians and public alike at how disagreement can spill over into hatred and then result in tragedy was deeply felt. In that moment, when the country was bitterly divided over Brexit and debate about the future was characterised by acrimony, it was almost as if all sides had a moment of extraordinary clarity and saw how damaging the way they were conducting themselves was to public life and trust in politics.

Sadly, that hasn’t lasted. The leadership of the two main parties has changed since David Cameron and Jeremy Corbyn stood shoulder to shoulder, united in sorrow, when they came here to pay their respects.

Five turbulent years have seen the promises to tone down the viciousness of debate recede into the past. If anything, the bitterness that engulfed politics in 2016 has become the default position on all sides. It is not enough to disagree with opponents any more. Now, they must be destroyed, their credibility ripped to shreds.

Kim Leadbeater, the sister of Jo Cox, is Labour's candodate in the Batley and Spen by-election. She is pictured with party leader Sir Keir Starmer.

Witness the appearances of both Dominic Cummings, formerly Boris Johnson’s closest aide, and Health Secretary Matt Hancock before a committee of MPs investigating the handling of the pandemic. Accusations of lying were levelled by both, and the degree of personal loathing on display was disturbing.

This surely is not how Government – any government – should operate, with rivalries and intense dislikes at the heart of matters.

If judgments are clouded by this way of thinking, or even the desire to put one over on a rival, it cannot result in clear and rational policy for the greater good.

Nor does it make for healthy politics. Even though the pandemic has produced a degree of consensus between Government and Opposition, the animosity between Boris Johnson and Sir Keir Starmer is there for all to see as each seeks to undermine the credibility of the other and cast doubt on his honesty.

That summer of five years ago also embedded a worrying degree of dishonesty in politics. The populism of Mr Johnson is central to how he runs the country and it too often relies on making extravagant claims that have no basis in reality.

In 2016, it was the now notorious assertion that exiting the EU would mean millions more for the NHS every week, a downright lie.

In office, it was his standing on the steps of Downing Street two years ago promising a plan was in place to fix the social care crisis, when it is obvious no such thing exists.

The same with blithely forecasting last year that the Covid crisis would be over within weeks, when here we are almost 18 months on with restrictions on society still in place and the hoped-for June 21 easing delayed.

The overheated, furiously angry tone of so much social media is making debate even more toxic. Demands abound for people to be silenced, disgraced and cast into the sort of outer darkness that used to be the preserve of extreme religious sects.

Even those expressing mainstream political views can be piled on and condemned as morally repugnant by opponents, whose vehemence teeters on the brink of hatred.

This coarsening of debate, the sheer intolerance of, and unwillingness to listen to, opposing views has become so much a part of the national conversation that it is hard to see how to push back against it.

But we must, if the tone of our politics both in Parliament and amongst the population is not to grow ever more poisonous.

Politicians of all sides would do well to mark tomorrow’s anniversary by resolving to put into practice the pledges to return civility to debate that were made five years ago.

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