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Five years after Jo Cox's murder, Batley by-election turns on Palestine and Islamophobia

Cox, a prominent campaigner for Syria and Palestine who was killed by a neo-Nazi sympathiser in 2016, is commemorated as campaign begins to claim her seat in Batley and Spen
Mourners gather in the Yorkshire town of Birstall to commemorate the fifth anniversary of the death of Jo Cox on 16 June 2021 (MEE/Alex MacDonald)
By in
Birstall, England

Five years ago on 16 June, Jo Cox - the MP for the northern English constituency of Batley and Spen - was murdered by a far-right activist in broad daylight, the first political assassination in the United Kingdom since 1990.

The killing shocked the country, then in the middle of campaigning on a referendum over its membership of the European Union, which had seen political tensions heightened and repeated scare-mongering over immigration from Turkey and other eastern European countries to the UK.

An undated handout picture taken from the website of Labour MP Jo Cox on June 16, 2016 shows Labour MP Jo Cox posing outside the Houses of Parliament in London (AFP)
An undated handout picture taken from the website of Labour MP Jo Cox on 16 June 2016 shows the MP posing outside the Houses of Parliament in London (AFP)

Batley and Spen is now, once again, in the eyes of the country's media ahead of a 1 July by-election that is being contested by, among others, Cox's sister Kim Leadbeater, and which is bringing domestic and foreign policy issues around the questions of Palestine and Islamophobia to the forefront - two topics on which Cox was a vigorous campaigner.

On Wednesday, to mark the fifth anniversary of the Labour MP's death, locals gathered outside the library in the small market town of Birstall in West Yorkshire to say a prayer and hold a moment's silence for Cox.

Cox was shot and then stabbed outside the library on 16 June 2016 by Thomas Mair, a 53-year old unemployed gardener with neo-Nazi and Islamophobic tendencies.

Today, there is little to suggest that the sleepy town, birthplace of the discoverer of oxygen Joseph Priestley, was the site of the most notorious incident of far-right violence in Britain since the 1999 David Copeland nail bomb attacks.

"Jo was someone who fought for us to stand united together. She famously said that [we] all had far more in common than that which divides us," said Reverend Mike Green, from Churches Together in Birstall, reading from prepared remarks.

Around a dozen or so people gathered to recite a prayer, in which they called for her to be "greeted with choirs of angels" in heaven.

Afterwards, Green laid a bouquet of flowers on a concrete slab depicting a poppy outside the library.

Reverend Mike Green leads mourners in a prayer for Jox Cox in Birstall (MEE/Alex MacDonald)
Reverend Mike Green leads mourners in a prayer for Jox Cox in Birstall (MEE/Alex MacDonald)

Martin Oliver, a Birstall resident, was among those attending the memorial.

"We've got a firm of solicitors just on the corner there and I was here when it happened - I'd just gone in from Tesco literally when it all happened and a number of our members of staff were around and about," he told Middle East Eye.

"I think obviously what happened here is truly shocking and it's a small, peaceful town really and for that to happen anywhere, but particularly here - I don't think that people will forget that for a long time."

'I think the messages that Jo Cox sent out when she was part of Birstall was a really important one and it got broadcast on an amplified level when she died and I think we should continue that'

- Martin Oliver, Birstall resident

As a Labour MP, Cox had been highly popular in the area and was praised for championing the communities, while at the same time passionately speaking in favour of the plight of the Palestinians and Syrians suffering under Israeli and President Bashar al-Assad's bombs, respectively.

Oliver said that her death had the consequence of amplifying a lot of the values that Cox had supported during her life.

"I think the messages that Jo Cox sent out when she was part of Birstall was a really important one and it got broadcast on an amplified level when she died and I think we should continue that," he explained.

"Unfortunately as time goes on people's memories fade and I think it's important that we come out and we keep spreading the word really."

Hotly contested seat

A by-election was triggered in Batley and Spen after the sitting Labour MP, Tracy Brabin, resigned in 2021 to run for mayor of West Yorkshire.

Following Cox's death, the main parties stood down their candidates out of a mark of respect to allow Brabin to take the seat - though a number of far-right parties still fielded candidates.

This time around the seat is being hotly contested, although both the Labour Party and the Conservative Party announced they were suspending their campaigning for Wednesday to commemorate Cox's death.

The street in Birstall, West Yorkshire where Jo Cox was murdered in 2016 (MEE/Alex MacDonald)
The street in Birstall, West Yorkshire where Jo Cox was murdered in 2016 (MEE/Alex MacDonald)

Campaigners for George Galloway, a former Labour MP who is poised to potentially be a major spoiler in the by-election, told MEE the candidate was not suspending his campaign, though they said they would be holding a minute's silence for Cox later on Wednesday.

The race to inherit Cox's mantle has been throw into turmoil by rumblings that the constituency's large Muslim community were sharply turning against the Labour Party over current leader Keir Starmer's positions on Israel-Palestine and Kashmir.

'Jo Cox was a completely different person...people literally loved her'

- Nadeem Raja, Indian Muslim Welfare Society

What was once an absolutely staunch Labour seat is at risk of falling to the Conservative Party or, less likely but more dramatically, falling to Galloway and the Workers Party of Britain, who have been positioning themselves as the pro-Palestine choice.

Nadeem Raja, the general manager of the Indian Muslim Welfare Society (IMWS) - which counts around 3,000 household members across Batley - told MEE that there was a risk that Labour was taking the Muslim community for granted and that the party's equivocation on the recent violence in Israel-Palestine was damaging its prospects.

He said this stood in stark contrast to Cox. Proudly displayed in the foyer of the IMWS headquarters in Batley was Cox's first speech made in the UK's House of Commons, in which she praised immigration to the UK, saying the country's communities had been "deeply enhanced by immigration, be it of Irish Catholics across the constituency or of Muslims from Gujarat in India or from Pakistan, principally from Kashmir."

"Jo Cox was a completely different person...people literally loved her," explained Raja.

"The Muslim community loved her. Because she had never been biased, she had always been there for the community."

He said, by contrast, Leadbeater was an unknown quantity. Though she was Cox's sister, she had not been chosen from the local community or with any consultation with them.

Values and emotional connections

A new survey released by the polling company Survation on Monday, commissioned by the Labour Muslim Network, showed that while the Labour Party continues to maintain wide support among British Muslims, Starmer is widely unpopular among the community.

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Labour has, over the last week, issued new pamphlets that emphasise their candidate's support for the Palestinians and for the people of Kashmir, after realising that the topics were potentially hurting them on the doorstep.

But whether Leadbeater will win on the basis of an emotional connection to Cox or whether Starmer's Labour Party will succeed in losing a once-safe seat on the basis of his prevarication on crucial issues, is still anyone's guess, said Oliver.

"Possibly because of the name and the connection," he said.

"But I think at the end of the day, Jo's sister needs to campaign with Jo's values if she believes in those - but I'm sure she'll have her own values and way of doing things."