Rage Britain! Three years after MP Jo Cox’s murder, her sister set out to discover what turned modern life so toxic. Her despairing conclusion? It’s got even worse since that appalling tragedy
- Kim Leadbeater, 43, is the sister of MP Jo Cox who was murdered in 2016
- She believes that since Jo’s murder the nation is now angrier and more divided
- Show Angry Britain: Beyond Repair? features MPs who have faced abuse online
- Kim said the Jo Cox Foundation is making a Code of Conduct for political parties
Kim Leadbeater is extremely angry. This Sunday marks the third anniversary of the murder of her older sister, the Labour MP Jo Cox.
The 41-year-old politician was shot and stabbed multiple times by Nazi-sympathising extremist Thomas Mair near her constituency surgery in Birstall, West Yorkshire in 2016.
The barbaric killing shook the nation, left a family shattered and her children, aged just five and three, without their mother.
Kim, 43, a health and fitness consultant, was thrust reluctantly into the spotlight as spokesperson for the grieving family.
Labour MP Jo Cox, pictured in 2015, was murdered by Nazi-sympathising extremist Thomas Mair near her constituency surgery in Birstall, West Yorkshire in 2016
Since that fateful day, she has also been at the forefront of the ‘More In Common’ movement — founded after Jo’s indelible quote: ‘We have more in common than that which divides us’ — to promote compassion and kindness within communities.
Like her older sister, Kim has always appeared calm and composed. But today, at her home in Gomersal, West Yorkshire, she admits she can be overwhelmed by fury at the senseless killing of her beloved Jo.
‘I am still extremely angry,’ she says. ‘Mum, Dad and I are guilty of putting on a brave face and pretending everything is OK, when everything is clearly not OK and it will never be OK again.
‘This week, with the anniversary, is always difficult but then every day is difficult. The sadness and sorrow never disappear. I still haven’t processed what happened properly.
Jo’s sister Kim Leadbeater said she believes the nation has become angrier and more divided since Jo’s death. Pictured is NHS worker Siobhan Prigent in the face of a Donald Trump supporter in London during the U.S. President’s State visit
Kim, pictured left with her sister Jo as children, said the anniversary this week ‘is difficult but then every day is difficult. The sadness and sorrow never disappear’
‘I know I will probably need counselling and I keep going at 100 miles an hour and I will crash at some point. I’m not scared of that.
‘We’re very lucky that that individual who killed Jo will never be out of prison.
‘I try not to waste my energy thinking or talking about him, or what he did, and I made a decision very early on that the anger, despair and self-pity I felt, well, I’m not going give in to them.
‘I’ve already had too much taken away from me. But yes, there are occasions where I feel the anger overwhelm me and I have to step back for a moment to calm down.’
Anger is not an emotion you readily associate with Jo Cox’s family, who continue to work tirelessly on campaigns such as The Great Get Together, in which communities connect through events such as picnics, street parties and sports days.
Health and fitness consultant Kim, pictured, feels the nation is now angrier and more divided than ever before
Three years after Jo’s death, Kim said: ‘Mum, Dad and I are guilty of putting on a brave face and pretending everything is OK, when everything is clearly not OK.’ Pictured are Gordon and Jean Leadbeater
Jo was killed by intolerance and hatred, fomented during the tinderbox countdown to the EU Referendum. Her killer saw her passionate defence of immigration, and pro Remain stance as treason, and therefore a legitimate target.
The get-togethers are the very antithesis of that bigotry. For the anniversary this year, the family organised a rugby memorial game with the local team and plan to spend the day together. But despite the family’s best attempts to encourage a sense of community, Kim feels we are now an angrier and more divided nation than ever before.
‘Since Jo’s murder, it feels like things have actually got worse,’ she says. ‘The way we talk to each other and treat one another now seems so angry and so toxic.
‘Our politics feels bitterly divided. Brexiteers are labelled fascists, Remainers called traitors, people who disagree with us are “The Enemy”… it’s a total mess.’
Jo, pictured, was killed by intolerance and hatred, fomented during the tinderbox countdown to the EU Referendum
The statistics seem to back her up. In the short period since Jo was killed, the number of people charged with sending malicious messages has risen by 38 per cent, and the number of death threats reported to the police has risen by 70 per cent in two years.
Research by the University of Sheffield, which analysed messages sent to MPs on Twitter throughout May, found that 40,000 responses were abusive. That’s four times higher than the same period last year. Some of the worst threatened violence.
It has prompted Kim to look at the problem more closely. Tonight, she presents a special programme — Angry Britain: Beyond Repair? — in the hope of understanding what has gone wrong with society.
‘The people I have spoken to are struggling to pinpoint why this is happening, but what I’m clear on is that we need to fix it,’ she says.
Kim, pictured left with her father, mother and Jo as children, decided to look more closely at rage and will present TV show Angry Britain: Beyond Repair? which will air on Thursday night
Kim said her sister, pictured together in 1984 on a trip to Whipsnade Zoo, would be ‘extremely upset that we’re in this mess’
‘Jo would be extremely upset that we’re in this mess. But I wanted to know if I felt this way because of what has happened to us? Or is this a serious problem in our society and, if it is, what can we do about it?
‘I’m proud to live in a country where we can express opinions freely. Robust debate is really important — but how we shape that debate matters.
‘People feel out of control and that makes them angry, and I understand the need to scream and shout but it’s not going to move things forward.’
In the programme, Kim visits Westminster and meets backbench MPs Huw Merriman, David Davies and Jess Phillips who, along with their colleagues, have received unprecedented abuse — both online and in person — in recent months.
Kim said little changes make a massive difference in the world. Pictured is Jean Leadbeater with daughters Kim, left, and Jo, right, on holiday in St. Annes, Lancs. in 1980
Merriman has faced intimidation since he backed a second referendum on Brexit, Davies has started using his phone to regularly record the abuse thrown at him, while Phillips is said to receive around 1,000 sexually abusive messages online a week.
Some of it even comes from so-called colleagues: UKIP candidate Carl Benjamin caused outrage when he sent a tweet to Phillips, commenting ‘I wouldn’t even rape you’ … and refused to apologise.
‘I’ve spoken to a lot of MPs over the last few years and the abuse they are facing is horrendous,’ says Kim.
‘It’s not just one party, it’s not just Leavers or Remainers, it’s not just men and women — although women do seem to get the lion’s share.
Kim revealed Jo, pictured ‘used to talk about “the silent majority” who could see things wrong in our community but didn’t do anything about it’ and said she now tries to change things
Through her work with the Jo Cox Foundation Kim, pictured, said sheis inspired how many people are ‘sick of the division, who are sick of the hatred and the anger’
‘I’ve spoken to MPs whose children have begged them, saying: “Mummy, don’t go into work, I’m worried about you.” These MPs are genuinely fearful for their safety and tell me that they’re even scared to vote with the courage of their convictions because of the abuse they’ll get. So it’s affecting our democracy.
‘Even at the weekend, an MP told me she was buying some shampoo in the supermarket and had someone screaming down the aisles at her.
‘MPs are good at putting a brave face on it, but you can tell they are upset, there is fear and worry there. She is a tough cookie but, of course, it gets to her.
‘It’s not only the MPs, but their staff and their families. I don’t want to scaremonger or get things out of proportion, but I don’t want any other family to go through what we’ve been through.’
In the documentary Kim meets politicians David Davis, Jess Phillips and Huw Merriman to talk about the abuse they have experienced both online and in person
Kim also meets Rachel Riley, pictured together, who received thousands of messages of abuse on Twitter since she started challenging some of the alleged anti-Semitism in the Labour Party
The reasons behind the vitriol are no doubt complex and Kim says blame cannot be attributed to a single source such as social media or the breakdown of face-to-face interaction. But she believes those in the public eye have been dehumanised.
Politicians are not the only ones affected. Kim meets with Rachel Riley, the Countdown and Strictly Come Dancing star who has received thousands of messages of abuse on Twitter since she started challenging some of the alleged anti-Semitism in the Labour Party.
‘She’s ended up in the middle of this huge debate about anti-Semitism and she’s chosen to take a very vocal stance on it,’ says Kim.
‘She’s decided to fight back but then found herself getting a lot more abuse and she admits it can affect her mental health.
For Jo’s family every anniversary is difficult. Her parents Jean and Gordon Leadbeater are pictured embracing in Parliament Square after a service in June 2016
‘You can understand why you might snap and that’s one of the reasons why I’m not on social media. I’m still in a very emotionally raw position.’
She adds: ‘I know I’m going to get grief for making this programme and I feel vulnerable and exposed. Even when there are 100 positive comments, you will focus on the ten negative ones and that erodes your confidence.
‘Jo was rarely abused online, but when she was, it affected all of us.’
While politicians and celebrities choose to lead their lives in the public eye, which has left them open to abuse, Kim speaks with ordinary members of the public who have also been affected.
She visits the family of Allan Bryant, a 23-year-old from Fife who went missing on a night out in November 2013. There has been no sighting of him since. His family have spent five years keeping Allan’s name in the media in the hope of news, but they have received a barrage of abuse from sadistic internet trolls.
Kim shakes her head: ‘The abuse that his family are getting … well, there are no words really to try and understand that,’ she says.
In the ITV programme Kim, pictured left in 1982 with older sister Jo, also visits the family of Allan Bryant, a 23-year-old from Fife who went missing on a night out in November 2013
‘They get abuse from people who say the family have killed him, people have set up fake Facebook stories to say they’ve killed him, and a 30-year-old was sending pictures of knives and saying they were going to stab him.
‘I really struggle with the fact that anyone seems fair game. You look at people being abused who have lost relatives through suicide or they’re missing, people who have children who are ill, who have had cancer… what has gone wrong with our society that people who have suffered are then expected to suffer again?’
I suggest public anger and frustration has never bubbled far from the surface, but as people feel able to express it on more platforms it spreads like a contagion.
She nods. ‘My background is sport, so this is my analogy,’ she says. ‘If someone commits a foul and the referee doesn’t spot it, it can very easily become a free-for-all. Someone else will then swear, then another and it snowballs.
Since her sister’s murder Kim has also been at the front of the ‘More In Common’ movement. She is pictured with her parents in Birstall town square
‘So unless we nip it in the bud, it’s only going to get worse. People say: “Well, it’s only words”, but it only takes one person to hear those words, someone who is surrounded by a toxic atmosphere and to take action on those words. Then you end up with where we are in our situation.’
But can anything be done to tackle such hate?
‘Who sets the moral compass of the nation?’ shrugs Kim. ‘I’m a huge believer in freedom of speech and believe that you should be able to express your opinions, but where do you draw that line?
‘Through the Jo Cox Foundation we’re trying to put together a Code of Conduct that all political parties will sign up to, so we’re hoping that will have a dropdown effect.
Kim, pictured right with her parents at a tribute to her sister,said that although Jo ‘would be upset that things are the way they are, in the country she loved’ she would be trying to change them for the better
‘There are conversations going on with social media companies who are finally realising that they need to do more to tackle online hate — but at the same time while we don’t want death threats, we do want freedom of speech.’
In an attempt to delve deeper and understand what draws people into hatred in the first place, Kim also meets with Ivan Humble, a former member of the Far Right group English Defence League (EDL) who had a change of heart and now works in cross-community initiatives building bridges. ‘It was strange meeting him, but rather than dismissing people who have held different views to us, we should always try to sit down, talk to them and understand them,’ she says.
‘He told me that the problem lay with a lack of jobs, no investment in mental health services and youth services, and that he had felt a sense of belonging with the EDL and I can understand that.
‘If you feel you’re not being listened to and you’re searching for a sense of identity, extremist groups will find you — whether that’s Islamist Extremism or Far Right Extremism. This is across the board.
Kim, pictured at home in West Yorkshire, said: ‘I’m a huge believer in freedom of speech and believe that you should be able to express your opinions, but where do you draw that line?’
‘We have to start young by giving our children a sense of belonging. I am aware of the problems around my local area. We have schools here which are 99 per cent one ethnicity, so if you don’t meet other people of other ethnicities, how can you possibly understand the differences?
Yet when these children do get together at one of our events, they realise that it doesn’t matter who you pray to, or what Mum and Dad do, you just get on with each other and enjoy the bouncy castle.’
So will Angry Britain boil over? Does Kim Leadbeater fear it will get worse, despite the hard work done in Jo’s name? She hopes not.
‘What inspires me is the number of people I meet through the foundation who are sick of the division, who are sick of the hatred and the anger,’ she says. ‘Jo used to talk about “the silent majority” who could see things wrong in our community but didn’t do anything about it. I was one of them.
‘Until Jo’s murder, I got on with my own life and hadn’t even met my neighbours. But now, because of the worst possible reasons, it would be wrong of me not to do something about it.
‘Those small little changes can make such a difference — checking on your neighbours, saying “hello”, putting the bins out for someone and meeting people from different backgrounds.
‘Jo would undoubtedly be upset that things are the way they are, in the country she loved. But she wouldn’t be moaning about it, she would be saying: “Right, what can we do?” and that’s one of the reasons why I made the documentary — to try to make a difference.’
Angry Britain, Beyond Repair? Tonight at 7.30pm on ITV.
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