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I was not elected in a conventional way, and it was in the darkest of circumstances, through the loss of my friend and inspiration Jo Cox, that I came to be here. What happened was not only an attack on a woman, a family and a community; it was an assault on the principles and basis of our democracy. That is why I must first pay tribute to all the political parties that did not stand in the by-election out of respect. There will be many occasions when I passionately disagree with them about a whole host of issues, but today is not that day. I also thank the voters in Batley and Spen—those who normally support my party and those who do not—who lent me their vote this time because, as one woman said with quiet determination:
“We can’t let them win.”
As the manager of a local bar told me while fringe parties leafleted outside her pub:
“That’s not who we are, or what we believe.”
The loss of all those deposits on election night confirmed it, and I will stand tall against those whose only mission is to divide our community.
The election result was a victory for democracy, and the acts of kindness that I saw along the way defined this campaign. Many in this House came to help with the campaign, and they will have seen our vibrant and dedicated voluntary and community sector, which shines even brighter than ever before. They will have seen it in the cups of tea; the cake; the pakoras and samosas; the smiles and the tears; the people in the polling station who donated that day’s pay to Jo’s charitable fund; the stories of Jo’s kindness; and the quiet determination of our community to not let hate divide us. So many groups give support, friendship, assistance and opportunities to others. As one woman from the local Salvation Army put it:
“We have two hands, one to help ourselves and one to help others.”
That is the attitude of our constituency. We understand and enjoy our obligations to each other.
One special highlight during the election campaign was the Walky Talky community event organised by leaders of all faiths, Kirklees Council and Batley Bulldogs. People of all faith and none walked alongside each other, chatting in the sunshine from the town centre to the rugby stadium. When it was finished, people did not want to leave; they were hanging around, not ready to let this warm moment of community connection end. It was in her maiden speech that Jo said that
“what surprises me time and time again as I travel around the constituency is that we are far more united and have far more in common than that which divides us.”—[Official Report,
Vol. 596, c. 675.]
It was true then and it is even more the case now. We will never forget the difference that Jo has made and, through her legacy, continues to make. She was and is unforgettable. One gentleman from the community reflected, “Jo was a small woman with a big kick.” I witnessed that kick campaigning alongside Jo and the community to successfully defend Batley and Birstall’s local libraries.
This was a personal campaign for me. As a child growing up in a two-bedroomed council flat, those libraries were my solace, and anyone who is a fan of Ken Loach’s films will notice that more often than not, the turning point for the hero is always when he or she goes to a library to find the information they need. As the world gets ever more confusing and decisions taken about our lives seem further out of our hands, we need those libraries now more than ever.
I also think back to the time when I was six and our local council prevented my family from becoming homeless. Dad had been unemployed for a while and we had fallen behind in the mortgage repayments, so my mum had to hand back the keys to the building society. We would have been homeless had it not been for the council, who found us a roof over our head. But that was not an act of charity. It was a combination of political will and solidarity from local and nationally elected representatives. Today, there are now 14,000 people on the council house waiting list in Kirklees. Affordable housing is further out of reach than ever, and I will work hard to ensure that other families do not suffer the stress and anxiety that we did.
As someone with unique experience in the arts, as an actor and writer, culture will be of particular interest to me, and I know that it can be an engine of change for communities, bringing regeneration and jobs. Our young people in particular deserve nothing less. During the campaign I visited West Yorkshire Drama Academy, watching many working-class kids find their confidence and their voice. I saw myself there.
When I was a young actor and I went to castings, I would be asked where I was from. When I said, “Batley”, more often than not people would say, “Oh yeah, Batley Variety Club!” The fact that this little club could attract international stars such as Louis Armstrong, Shirley Bassey and the Bee Gees meant that there must be something about us that others want! Young people’s futures are more uncertain than ever, but whatever their ambitions, we must give them hope and belief that they can be the best. We have the power and responsibility in this place to help.
I am determined to use my time in this place to do everything I can for our community, whether campaigning to retain access to local NHS services, pursuing policies to end the need for food banks, or doing whatever I can to bring decent jobs and new investment to the constituency. Like so many in this House, I want to create a society where everyone can contribute and reach their full potential.
Jo continues to inspire me and so many others every day, as does the dignity shown by her husband Brendan and her loving family. I am among her friends, of whom there are many in the constituency, her trade union and this House.
I make this speech during a debate on policing, so I wish to finish with a tribute to the brave officers of West Yorkshire police, who reacted so swiftly and professionally on that awful day in June. A community that could have become overrun with panic, with such a terrible act taking place in broad daylight in the sleepy village that I grew up in, was looked after admirably by our police, in no small part because of the swiftness with which they made an arrest. What happened in Batley and Spen was a violent attack on a Member of this House, but I would like to take this moment to thank the police officers themselves who put their lives on the line every single day. I would also like to congratulate my hon. Friend and neighbour Holly Lynch for her hard work on raising this issue.
I take this moment to thank you, Mr Speaker, for your excellent leadership in the aftermath of Jo’s tragic death. Coming to Batley, recalling Parliament, arranging ceremonies and giving people space to grieve and mourn together was a kindness much appreciated by all in this House and beyond.
I am honoured to have the opportunity to do my bit and give a voice to my constituents through this Parliament of ours. That day will stay with everyone in Batley and Spen for the rest of our lives, but Batley and Spen will be defined not by the one person who took from us, but by the many who give. [Applause.]