It was the most shocking day in British politics this century. On 16 June 2016, a week before the Brexit vote, brooding tensions came to a climax with one horrific act of violence: the murder of Jo Cox. It was only 13 months since she had been elected to parliament as Labour’s MP for Batley and Spen in West Yorkshire. Cox had been a symbol of hope in politics: young, idealistic, popular, a doer who wanted to make a difference. Then she was fatally shot and stabbed outside a library in Birstall, a small market town in her constituency. Her killer, Thomas Mair, a local resident and far-right extremist, shouted “Britain first” as he attacked her.
Today, her sister Kim Leadbeater says she has blocked out much of what happened. “I know I haven’t really dealt with the day,” she says. “Maybe I never will. Maybe I’ll never need to.” Leadbeater, a fun-loving extrovert, is virtually whispering. “What’s the point? The only person who’ll suffer is me.”
A couple of months ago we agreed to meet to discuss Cox’s legacy as we approach the fifth anniversary of her death. Batley and Spen had traditionally been a quiet, stable constituency, rarely in the news until that terrible day. In May, it’s back in the news because its MP, Tracy Brabin, who replaced Cox in October 2016, has just been elected the first mayor of West Yorkshire, triggering a byelection on 1 July. It has also reopened old wounds. Batley and Spen voted 60% to 40% to leave Europe just after Cox’s death. Now there are fears that this could be the latest block of the “red wall” to collapse. For 24 years the constituency has elected a Labour MP, but pundits believe that this time the Conservatives might nudge it. It’s a key fight for both major parties. Lose this, and Keir Starmer’s leadership starts to look very wobbly.
On the train to Batley last month, I check the news. Astonishingly, Leadbeater, who has always shied away from the limelight, is in the headlines. The Guardian is reporting that she may throw her hat in the ring to become Labour’s candidate for her sister’s old seat.
We meet at Jo Cox House, a handsome building on Commercial Street in Batley. Leadbeater is sitting in an office that is used by the Jo Cox Foundation, a charity set up after Cox’s death. When she sees me she waves enthusiastically, smiling from cheek to cheek.
Well, this is a bit of a day, I say. Nothing has been decided yet, Leadbeater says, though she admits there may be an announcement later. But as we talk, it seems clear the decision has already been made. She tells me she’s terrified that Labour will lose the byelection. “It’s tough, Simon. People are disillusioned and disengaged.” Why? “They don’t trust politicians, do they?”
So why is she considering standing? “Jo used to say to me, if good people don’t step up, then nothing will change.” You look like Jo, I say. “D’you think so? No, she was far prettier than I am: short face, nice cheeks, dimples. Yeah, she got the looks. I got the sparkling personality!” She rocks with laughter. Leadbeater is one of life’s great gigglers. She defies you not to find the world funny, despite everything that’s happened.
I ask Leadbeater if she is the older of the sisters. She gives me a look. “I’m two years younger, you cheeky sod!” It’s embarrassing, but I realise why I’d thought so; Jo died at 41, Kim is now 45. The two girls were as close as can be when growing up in Heckmondwike, two miles from Batley and 10 from Leeds. They hung out together, shared friends, interests and values. “We were always the Leadbeater girls, if you know what I mean.” They were sporty (“I’ve played hockey all my life; Jo ran”) and academic, encouraged by their parents to believe they could do anything. She says their values were wholly shaped by their parents – Jean, a school secretary, and Gordon, a toothpaste and hairspray factory worker who became a shift manager.
Both girls went to Heckmondwike grammar school. Joanne (as she was then known) was head girl, Kim went on to be deputy head. Looking back, she can see now that they were popular kids, but again she credits this to her parents. “Everyone came to our house partly because everybody loved Mum and Dad so much. We’d break up with boyfriends and they’d keep coming round to see Mum and Dad. We’d be like, ‘It’s over, you need to leave!’”
She says her mother would open the door to visitors and just laugh. “My friends would be like, ‘What’s she laughing at?’” Why was she laughing? Because she was so happy to see them, Leadbeater says. I can see where she gets her positivity from.
Cox went to Cambridge, the first in the family to go to university. According to Leadbeater, she hated it initially and wanted to come home. The students seemed alien and snobbish. She realised many of them expected to be there as a birthright. She stuck it out, and ended up making good friends. Because Cox had gone to Cambridge, Leadbeater’s teachers decided she should go to Oxford. But she was never one to be told what to do, and her sister’s experience put her off. “I was like, ‘Well, I won’t be doing that then, I’ll be making my own way.’ I always knew my own mind. I was very stubborn.”
So, after A-levels, Leadbeater worked at a local carpet-yarn-spinning factory for a year and a half. She left to study philosophy and politics at Leeds for a few months before deciding student life wasn’t for her. Subsequently she got a job at a bed company, discovered she was a supreme saleswoman and quickly became national sales manager.
She shows me how she did it – all jazz hands and manically effusive voice. “It was largely men over 40 selling the beds, and I pitched up and was like, ‘Hiiiiii, buy some beds.’ And they were like, ‘Oh shit, we better buy some beds from this mad woman.’” She was headhunted by Slumberland, and by the age of 23 was earning serious money. Fast-forward another 18 months, and she’d had it with beds. She was obsessed with fitness, so trained to be an aerobics instructor (she dances on the spot by way of illustration); did a degree, then a PGCE, and reinvented herself as lecturer in exercise and fitness. She now works as a wellbeing coach and personal trainer.
While Leadbeater stayed local, Cox worked in Brussels and New York for Oxfam and did a stint as assistant for MEP Glenys Kinnock, also in Brussels. Leadbeater says they became more distant in those years. “In our 20s and 30s, we went our separate ways and didn’t speak to each other that much. Like lots of siblings, you’re just cracking on with it.” In 2009, Jo Leadbeater married Brendan Cox, an adviser on international development to Gordon Brown when he was prime minister. Soon after, their children Cuillin, now 10, and Lejla, eight, were born.
In 2015, Cox was elected MP for Batley and Spen, slightly increasing Labour’s majority. Ukip, which had not stood in the constituency in the previous election, got 18% of the vote. It was obvious that Cox, a Europhile, would have her work cut out.
Cox made an instant impression as an MP. Her maiden speech was commended for its unifying message. She became co-chair of the all-party parliamentary group Friends of Syria, and set up a cross-party loneliness commission with Conservative MP Seema Kennedy. She lived half the week on the family houseboat in London, and half in her constituency.
Was Leadbeater worried when Cox went into politics? “No, I was incredibly proud of her. I was more worried, and she was more worried, about juggling the kids and the job. But she did it. God knows how. Jo was all the time entertaining them, teaching them, guiding them, empowering them. That was her greatest legacy, forget the politics.” By now, she says, the shyness had gone, and Cox had a new confidence. “But there was still huge humility and compassion. There was none of this vote-for-me nonsense. People can tell, can’t they?”
There is a knock. Daryl Schofield, the site manager, puts his head round the door, unable to hide his excitement.
“Hellllllllooooo!” Leadbeater says, hands going like the clappers.
“Ey up, Kim. I’ve heard this rumour that you’re going to be standing as MP.”
“What d’you think if I were to do that?” she asks.
“I think it’s brilliant. I’ll come out and do some legwork for you,” he says.
“Would you? Aww!” Leadbeater might be sitting down, but she’s virtually dancing for joy in her chair.
He closes the door.
“How lovely’s that?” she says.
Although Cox appeared to be thriving, she struggled with the nastiness of politics. She didn’t get trolled much on social media, but when she did – often on the issue of Syria – it hurt. Six weeks before Cox was killed, Leadbeater celebrated her 40th birthday. She organised a weekend away for those closest to her. She didn’t expect that Cox would make it because she was so busy. At the last second, her sister surprised her, hiring a car and staying the whole weekend. On the Sunday, she and Cox walked to the pub. That was when Cox told her just how difficult she was finding it. “She said, ‘I think I’m going to have to get a thicker skin.’ I said, ‘Don’t even think of changing who you are because who you are makes you the best person to do what you’re doing.’ She said, ‘I’m going to have to toughen up’, because she was getting some crap from people. It’s not nice to be disagreed with, but she knew that was part of her job. But when people start being horrible on a personal level, that’s different. I sent her a text message saying, ‘If you need to walk away from this job, do so.’”
Has she still got the text? “Yeah. I’ve not looked at it for a long time.” She scrolls through her phone, and eventually finds it. Leadbeater reads it out, her voice a little unsteady. “Jo, we love you so much. Do not let the bastards get you down. They are stupid and ignorant and you are way better than them. Have a good think about things and if you decide this job, which is what it is, is not for you, then get out. We will support you 100%. You are an amazing sister, wife, daughter, mother and woman. Please ring if you need anything at all. Xxx.”
Leadbeater sent Cox the text on 13 May, five weeks before she was murdered.
Does she think her sister would have stayed in politics? “I think she would have found it hard. All the female MPs I know find it really hard. But because she was so determined to make a difference, I think she would have stuck it out. It’s like when she went to Cambridge – it would have been so easy to have given up. We used to say, ‘Jo, come home’, she’d be really upset and struggling, and she never did.”
Leadbeater told Cox’s personal assistant, Fazila Aswat, she was worried about her sister. They decided she had to carve out some relaxation time in her diary. Every Thursday she would come up to the constituency, so they set aside one evening a week for the sisters to hang out. “We said, ‘Right, you’re going to get a takeaway with me, snuggle up and watch some crap TV and do all the things that normal people do.’”
A week before she was killed, they watched the Brexit debate together. They discussed why Batley and Spen seemed so pro-Brexit. Cox believed it was partly an expression of their general disillusionment with politics, and partly because people simply didn’t know what the EU did. “I used to say to Jo, ‘I don’t have any idea of what the European parliament does either.’ I still don’t, if I’m being honest, but that’s just because I didn’t know, it’s not because I’m stupid. There is a massive difference between knowledge and intellect.” That was the last conversation she remembers having with her sister.
As for the day Cox was killed, so much of it is still a blur. “Your brain’s clever, isn’t it? It shuts off what it can’t deal with. And I’ve got so much it’s not dealt with.” She remembers being about to settle down to watch England play Wales at Euro 2016 when she got a call to say that her car, which was in for an MOT, was ready for collection. If she ran, she’d have just enough time to fetch it before the 2pm kick-off. “As I got there, Jo’s husband rang me, and I thought, that’s a bit weird, Thursday afternoon. He said Jo’s been attacked and I just started shaking. You know when you just know... ” She trails off, and apologises for her tears. “I literally knew straight away. I just knew.”
She went home, and told her partner that Cox had been attacked, and they had to go to the hospital. “My partner had had an operation on her foot, so she couldn’t drive. She said, ‘You’re in no state to drive, so I’m going to have to.’” Leadbeater is weeping as she tries to piece together the day. “And I just knew,” she repeats. “I knew before I even got there. My partner said, ‘She’s going to be all right’ and I just put my hand on her leg and said, ‘It’s not going to be all right.’ In that one moment everything changes for ever.”
She squishes away her tears. She remembers going to identify the body. “That was awful, but I knew I had to do it. Somebody had to do it.” And her brain races from memory to thought and back again as she tries to regain control. “And it just shows you how resilient human beings are, because we do find a way to carry on, don’t we? Even though it’s really hard.” She looks shattered, and asks to take a short break.
When she has regained her composure, I ask how her parents coped. “Mum and Dad have been amazing, but they’ll never understand it. People talk about getting over things and some things happen in life you’ll never get over. We’ve become a really strong unit – Mum, Dad, me and my partner. When you’ve got that shared trauma it creates a really powerful bond.” Leadbeater asks that we don’t name her partner of 11 years; she hopes to hold on to as much privacy as possible.
Can the family talk to each other about what happened? “We talk about Jo all the time.” But can you talk about the day? “No. No. And I don’t generally talk about the day or her murder to anybody.” Would they ever talk about Mair’s motives? “We don’t talk about it, but we’re very clear that it was politically motivated and it was a far-right attack because there was an ideological difference between the person Jo was and the views that this individual held.” She doesn’t say his name.
Leadbeater has been quoted as saying she doesn’t feel anger towards Mair, but she says this is untrue. “I’m furious. But what do you do with that anger? I can let it beat me. I can let it eat away at me and take even more from me, or I can channel it into doing something good. I know that’s what Jo would want me to be doing.”
In 2018, Cox’s husband, Brendan, resigned from two charities set up in her memory (the Jo Cox Foundation and More In Common) after being publicly accused of sexual assault by a woman in her 30s at Harvard University in 2015. He issued a statement denying the allegation, but admitted making mistakes in a previous role with the charity Save The Children. (In 2015 he had resigned from his job at Save the Children after allegations of “inappropriate behaviour”.) He said: “I want to apologise deeply and unreservedly for my past behaviour and for the hurt and offence that I have caused.”
Did Leadbeater feel betrayed? She takes her time before answering. “I felt really disappointed and upset. And it was upset on top of upset. But ultimately my priority is the kids. Brendan is a brilliant dad, and those kids are so well loved and are given the amazing experiences Jo would want them to have. We will always be a family unit because that’s what Jo would want us to be.”
I ask how she has changed over the five years. “Without wanting to sound like I’m on The X Factor, I’ve been on a journey, haven’t I? The most horrific journey. But from it I’ve learned so much. I’ve been given an opportunity to make a difference for the worst possible reason. I feel there is a moral sense of not walking away from that.”
Cox was the first sitting MP to have been killed in Britain since Ian Gow was killed by an IRA bomb in 1990. Her death was shocking for the country, but must have been so much more so for her constituents, I say. “Jo being murdered has had an unbelievable impact on this community. People were distraught, heartbroken. People still come up to me every week and tell me about the time they met Jo. And you can see in people that it is still fresh.” Was there a sense of collective trauma? “Massive trauma for this area. And compounded by the fact that it had happened locally. If it had happened in London, that would have still been our MP, but it wasn’t just the fact that she was our MP, it was that she was from around here, she was one of us, and it happened here on our doorstep. That’s one thing my dad still struggles with. Jo had been to bloody Bosnia and bloody Syria and all over the world, and then it happens where we grew up, five minutes from where we live.”
Jo Cox House is barely a two-minute drive from where she was killed. I ask if there is a plaque there to commemorate Jo. “No, we didn’t want that. We’ve tried to focus on how Jo lived rather than how she died. So everything we do is very positive.” But, she says, it’s probably one of the few places locally that doesn’t have a plaque in honour of her sister. The maternity ward at the local hospital has a plaque to commemorate her; their old school has got the Jo Cox sixth-form centre; Kirklees College has a library dedicated to her; Bradford College has a cafe named after her. Leadbeater’s favourite is the Jo Cox Community Wood in Spen Valley. “When they took me to this field, it was an absolute shit heap, and I was like, ‘If this is going to be a wood I will eat my chuffing hat.’ Two years on, she says, it’s as inspiring as it is beautiful. “We’ve now got a wood full of baby trees, and there’s an oak tree for Jo.”
After Cox’s death, the consensus among MPs was that there had to be a calmer, kinder politics. There was hope that this might be her legacy.
“That went well, didn’t it?” Leadbeater says. Does she think the country is any safer now for politicians? “I don’t know if I do. It’s toxic. Everybody has said to me that if I choose to go into politics, it’s brutal.” Is she tougher than Cox was? “I think fundamentally I am. I would take less crap than Jo.” Who would win in a fight? “We never had fights, you little bugger. God no, we were best mates.” So you would have won then? “Yeah, probably… I would say people who knew us both would say I’m probably the tougher one.”
Eleven days after we meet, it’s announced that Leadbeater will be Labour’s candidate for the byelection. When we catch up, she has already been campaigning for a couple of weeks. “Hiya darling!” she says with that familiar warmth. But now I can also sense the toughness she was talking about. She is quickly discovering how brutal politics can be, and, as she said earlier, she’s not taking any crap. I tell her I’m still not sure why somebody who has been through what she has would want to go into politics. Jo’s words about good people stepping up were ringing in her ears, she says. “If I have a chance to make a difference, I need to go for it.”
Was the conversation with her parents and partner about standing difficult? She laughs. “It wasn’t one conversation; there were lots of conversations. We played the hokey cokey. The initial response was: we’re in. Then it was: let’s not do this, this is a really silly idea, we’re out. Then, having talked it through, and the impact I could potentially have, we decided as a family to at least put myself forward and then see what happens. I would only do it if Mum and Dad supported me, and my family and friends.”
Why did she think it was a silly idea? “Politics can be a really tough place for anybody, but particularly for women, and obviously we have our own horrific story. So there was a very clear argument for not doing it. And the disruption to my life – going to London three days a week. There’s also the impact on my privacy. Some people know who I am locally, but this is a whole other level. We did a list of pros and cons and there were a heck of a lot of cons, but the one pro was the ability to make a difference.”
I ask whether she and her family fear for her. “I wouldn’t describe it as fear. It was nervousness and apprehension.” What I mean, I say, is has it crossed your mind that what happened to Jo could happen to you? “No. Because you can’t live your life thinking that. You wouldn’t leave the house.”
Leadbeater doesn’t mince her words about how Labour needs to change. “Labour needs to reconnect with its roots and the fact that it is the party of working-class people. It needs real people to make some of those changes.”
Does that mean there are too many unreal people in Labour politics? “I’ve met some brilliant MPs, but you get drawn into that world, and I can see it happening. I’m going into politics to change politics; I don’t want it to change me. I don’t want to be part of the Westminster bubble – I want to burst the Westminster bubble. And the way to do that is by providing authentic voices.”
If Labour is to thrive, she believes, politicians must be more connected to their constituencies. She will also campaign, as she has done since Cox’s murder, for greater civility in public life and for people to be better educated about the importance of politics in their life from school onwards.
She says she’s been touched by the reaction from local people when she’s been out campaigning. “The feedback I’m getting is they do want a local person to be their champion. They don’t want a career politician.”
But she has already experienced the inevitable hostility. There have been suggestions that she is piggybacking on her sister’s murder to build a career, that she is going into politics without having done the necessary background work, and that this is a form of emotional mugging from a Labour party terrified of losing the seat. When I mention this, I see the scrapper in Leadbeater. “Look, I’ve already been subjected to some pretty horrible comments in the media and on social media. I went into it knowing that would happen. People are going to be negative and cruel. My story is my story. I can’t change that. And, let’s be fair, that is what has brought me here, but if I’d have wanted to jump on Jo’s coat-tails or however people want to put it, I had that opportunity five years ago. People did ask me to stand at that point, and there was absolutely no way that would have been the right thing to do – not least because of my lack of experience. But I’ve had five years now on an extremely steep learning curve about politics, community, the issues that matter to people, so this does feel like the right time. Ultimately, I am who I am and either that will be good enough for people, or it won’t.”
Leadbeater comes in peace, but she also sounds like an avenging angel, determined to do her sister justice, achieve everything Cox was likely to – and possibly more. It’s now clear how similar she is to Cox, and how different. While her sister took a much more traditional route into Labour politics (Oxbridge, international aid work, the European parliament), Leadbeater is a proud outsider, and intends to remain that way. She could be a rare asset for the Labour party – a throwback to the old-fashioned working-class MP rooted in the community, and at the same time thoroughly modern.
Ever since that dreadful day nearly five years ago, Kim Leadbeater has become best known as Jo Cox’s sister. And in the short term, at least, that is unlikely to change. Does it bother her? “No,” she says instantly. “It’s an honour to be Jo Cox’s sister. I’m not going to shy away from that badge. Thank you, I’ll take it.” The words tumble out fast and heartfelt. Then, finally, she takes a breather. “But I’m also Kim, and I’m very clear in my own identity. And I have to remember that as well.”
• The caption of the final photo in this article was amended on 7 June 2021 to correct the spelling of Haworth.