The murder of MP Jo Cox in 2016 shocked the nation and forced her sister KIM LEADBEATER to make an agonising choice. She tells Eimear O’Hagan what compelled her to follow in Jo’s political footsteps.
The last time Kim Leadbeater saw her sister Jo was in a mortuary. To spare her parents and brother-in-law Brendan the pain, it was Kim who bravely volunteered to identify Jo’s body, following her brutal murder in June 2016. ‘I needed to see her with my own eyes, to accept that she was dead.’
That horrific image, while etched in her memory, is not the Jo that Kim sees in her mind when she remembers her elder sister. ‘The Jo in my memories is riding with me on our BMX bikes, or in her Guides uniform, or taking me with her to parties when we were teenagers. She’s holding her babies, and making her maiden speech in the House of Commons after she became an MP. That’s the Jo I see – my sister and my best friend says Kim, 45, who lives in West Yorkshire with her partner Clare.
It was a warm June day when Kim’s phone rang with news that would change her life for ever. ‘It was Brendan who called me and told me she had been attacked. I vividly remember my entire body began to shake– it was a very physical manifestation of my shock. I can’t explain how, but I just knew I wasn’t going to see her alive again,’ says Kim. ‘Clare said to me: “It’s going to be OK” and I replied, “It’s not.” I just knew.’
Jo, who was 41 and the MP for Batley and Spen, was pronounced dead in an ambulance before even reaching hospital, having been stabbed and shot multiple times outside a library in her constituency in broad daylight. Her killer, Thomas Mair, was a right-wing extremist who was later sentenced to life in prison. ‘I think about my life in terms of before and after Jo was killed,’ says Kim. ‘Before, it was wonderful, full of happiness, full of love. Then it changed for ever the day she died.’
One significant– and unexpected– change is that Kim has recently followed her sister into a career in politics. In July 2021, Kim was elected as MP in the same seat Jo had held for 13 months before her death. It’s a new chapter of her life which Kim admits she’s still getting used to. ‘It all still feels very surreal. I can’t quite believe this is my job now,’ says Kim, speaking from her constituency office in Heckmondwike. ‘I never planned to become a politician. The path I have been on to reach the Commons is very, very different to most other MPs. And after such an intense journey to reach this point it does feel very emotionally loaded. People have asked, am I enjoying it? And that’s a hard question to answer, because I’m not sure I’ve got the capacity to enjoy things in the way I used to. I think, as a coping mechanism, my emotions have become quite muted and it’s hard to fully enjoy something that was taken away from someone I loved.
‘That said, already I understand why Jo loved this job so much. To be surrounded by amazing staff, to interact with constituents and help them, and to work alongside fellow MPs on issues I’m passionate about feels incredibly satisfying. And there is something empowering about sitting on those green benches and thinking, “Maybe I can actually make a difference to this country”. It’s a scary but powerful thought, and I feel honoured to have this opportunity.’
It would be easy to assume Kim’s decision to run for election was some sort of emotional tribute to Jo. Kim insists that’s not the case. ‘Of course, I can’t separate my decision to run from her death, but it’s never been about “doing it for Jo”. In fact, when it was first suggested to me by some family and friends that I should run in the by-election, my initial response was absolutely not! I found the idea of going into politics ridiculous. I’d been working for the Jo Cox Foundation and that had always been apolitical and about trying to bring people together across the [political] divide. But the more I talked about it with Clare, and my parents, the more I felt that if I didn’t do this, I’d regret it. I asked myself, what if someone is elected who doesn’t know this area and its issues, and doesn’t care about it the way I do? Ona personal level and for the Foundation, that would have been difficult.
Kim is insistent that she sits in the Commons as herself, not ‘Jo Cox’s sister’, and will walk her own path. ‘Being her sister is what brought me to this point, but now I am here I will do things my way. However, as much as Jo and I were very different personality-wise–I was the more confident, bossy one, she was more shy and had more self-doubt – we were incredibly similar when it came to our values, our compassion, our care for people, which was passed down to us from our parents. And so the way I approach dealing with people in this job will inevitably be similar to how she did.’
In the light of how her sister’s life was ended, Kim acknowledges that the decision to place herself in the public – and political – eye was fraught with worry. ‘My fear was more for my family, that if something were to happen to me, the impact on my parents and on Jo’s kids… having to go through that again would just be unimaginably horrific. People will say lightning doesn’t strike twice, but I really don’t know if I am more or less vulnerable because of what happened. I am incredibly careful though, and very well looked after by the police. What I do know is that politics needs good people, and I refuse to be scared of getting involved.’
Those fears were brought home in a deeply personal and painful way for Kim following the killing last October of Conservative MP Sir David Amess, who was stabbed to death at his constituency surgery in Essex. ‘It had a very profound effect on me. We all couldn’t believe this had happened again,’ says Kim, who paid an emotional tribute to Sir David in the Commons days after his death. ‘I was visiting a local school that day, then reports started to come through that an MP had been attacked, and then that he was dead. The police took me straight home, as I tried to call Clare and my mum to let them know I was OK, knowing that they would see it on the news and be very worried. I felt like I’d been plunged right back to June 2016, to those emotions of shock, disbelief, grief. And knowing the awful journey his family were embarking on from that day onwards, for the rest of their lives. I know their suffering because as a family we have lived it too.’
It’s family that has played a large part in helping Kim keep going, especially Jo and Brendan’s children, Cuillin, now ten, and Lejla, eight. ‘When Jo made her decision to run for election in 2015, following a successful career in the charity sector, her biggest concern was her children. She wanted to be a brilliant MP, but she wanted to be a brilliant mum too. She didn’t want her job to impact on the children, and I remember she spoke to other female MPs about how to do the job properly and still be the mother she wanted to be.’
Kim is extremely close to her niece and nephew and her face lights up when she talks about them. ‘They are amazing kids, so strong and full of energy. I see so much of Jo in them – they have her passion for life and both look like her. Lejla especially is the spitting image of Jo when she was a little girl. They are her biggest legacy– forget politics– and the thing that matters to me most. It’s both wonderful and bittersweet being with them, because I feel her absence so deeply when I’m around them.’
Time may have passed, but Kim says little has changed for her when it comes to processing what happened to her sister. ‘In many ways, Jo’s death still doesn’t feel real. I know she’s no longer here, but I haven’t dealt with it, if that makes sense? I think to help me cope, my mind has pushed a lot of things away so I can get on with life. There may come a day when I suddenly and fully realise what has happened and cannot function, but I’m not going to allow my life to be taken over waiting for that day. Enough has been taken from me already.’
For now, Kim is throwing herself into political life, not ‘for’ Jo, but with her sister always in her heart and mind. ‘I think about Jo every single day; I will never stop missing her. There is a void that can never be filled. On the days when I feel nervous, still getting to grips with this job, and wondering am I good enough, I hear her voice telling me: “Kim, you are.”‘