24 Jun The accidental by-election: How Labour triggered another divisive vote for the people of Batley and Spen | Politics News
Will Sir Keir Starmer face the biggest crisis of his leadership to date if he loses the by-election in the West Yorkshire constituency of Batley and Spen next week? Maybe.
Will former Labour MP George Galloway, standing for the Workers Party, attract enough support from the constituency’s large Muslim community, previously loyal to Labour, to deny the incumbent the seat? Potentially.
Will the Conservative Party’s approach of standing aloof from the slugfest between Labour and Mr Galloway’s Workers Party while following a “local” playbook identical to the one that proved successful in Hartlepool, allow them to come though the middle to victory? Possibly.
Or will the personal vote for Labour candidate Kim Leadbeater, evident on the streets of Batley, be enough to stem the tide of 2021 by-election shocks? Conceivably.
But in this mill town which has supported Labour since 1997, and the Conservatives before then, margins are tight. There is a gap of 3,525 votes between first and second place, and sentiment in the constituency’s towns is not obviously going in one direction. On the ground this week none of the campaigns seemed entirely sure what will happen next Thursday.
The Conservatives appeared more confident than the rest, although the whiff of panic apparent in other Labour campaigns this year was not evident here. Westminster is on a knife edge at the consequences that would flow from a hat trick of by-election upsets in 2021. Some on Labour’s left flank are already calling for Sir Keir to go if he loses.
Given the potential drama in SW1 over the result, little thought has been given to the repercussions for the people of Batley and Spen themselves. Even though everyone should be aware this is not a normal constituency which can be left to host a routine by-election.
On 16 June 2016, a week before the Brexit referendum, Jo Cox, Labour MP for Batley and Spen, died after being shot and stabbed multiple times in the constituency town of Birstall.
A 53-year-old neo-Nazi gardener, Thomas Alexander Mair, was found guilty of her murder. The judge said Mair wanted to advance the cause of white supremacism and said he was a modern day form of Nazi.
The tragedy will define the politics of this constituency for decades but its roots were in the inter-community tensions between extremists of different stripes that existed long before the murder and that are still evident in Batley and Spen today.
There is now a huge interfaith effort going on below the radar in an effort to avoid conflict.
Campaign group Hope Not Hate, which combats extremism, is active in the constituency. Yet still inter-community tensions here make global news, most recently at Batley Grammar School where a teacher showed pupils cartoons of the Prophet Mohammed, prompting protests at the school gates which sent him into hiding.
And these are tensions which Westminster’s politicians have done little to ease, with constituents about to vote in their fifth election to choose a representative in Westminster in six years, with all of the division that brings.
Ms Cox’s sister Kim Leadbeater is standing in the by-election for Labour, seeking to continue the “more in common” mantra of her sister.
But community and political temperatures are rising. Standing against her is a far-right activist and former deputy leader of Britain First, Jayda Fransen. Another far-right activist, Tommy Robinson, is due to hold a rally at the weekend while the council has banned Laurence Fox from holding a free speech rally on Thursday on the grounds it may be unsafe. He declared he would go ahead anyway.
Mr Galloway meanwhile leapt from nowhere on to the scene and is seeking to turn this campaign on to the subject of Palestine, suggesting Labour is insufficiently supportive of the Palestinian cause. Elsewhere there are allegations of homophobia and intimidation.
All for a by-election to allow Tracey Brabin, the previous incumbent MP to become West Yorkshire mayor, creating a vacancy in the seat. Some Labour MPs said a number of their colleagues were caught unawares by the need for her to resign immediately on election as mayor, since originally they had believed she might be able to continue doing both jobs.
“Labour should have seen this coming. It’s a bit odd that they’d choose a seat like this to have a by-election given what we know is happening and the cracks in the red wall,” said Lib Dem candidate Tom Gordon.
The arrival of another by-election has dismayed community leaders.
“It has been hard on our communities to have to have those discussions, once again, we’ve been committed to both local, national and international issues. And I think it has been difficult for us here”, the Revd Canon Mark Umpleby, a vicar in Batley told me.
He said the sheer number of times the constituency has been asked to go to the polls to choose an MP has made community cohesion trickier.
“Due to the nature of what’s taken place within our communities, either recently, or when Jo was murdered, there are those who seem to be seeking to, to kind of divide communities,” he added.
The outsiders he is referring to are likely to include Mr Galloway, who has created one of the most visible campaigns in just a month. But is this really about the people of Batley and Spen?
Mr Galloway told me: “I’m not standing with respect against Kim Leadbeater but I’m standing against Keir Starmer. I’m determined that he should be ousted as the leader of the Labour Party in the interests of the working class in the interests of the labour movement.”
One leading local imam told Sky News that Mr Galloway’s campaign is dividing the community.
“What I can see is that especially the new generation, they seem to be supporting him, quite actively and they seem to be looking at him and somebody as the hopes they’ve lost from Labour, they look at him as a saviour,” said Khabbaab Ahmed, Imam of Al Hashim academy.
Asked what the older generations think, he replied: “They think the youngsters have been deceived. They’ve been lied to.”
However the imam said that Labour was having trouble holding on to the votes of the Muslim community.
“Until a few years ago, Muslims looked at labour like a Muslim-friendly party – a party that stands up as a voice for them. For the last few years, they seemed to be losing faith… it has become too much against Muslims in some ways.”
The Conservative campaign is trying to stand aside from the very visible conflict between Labour and the Workers Party. Ryan Stephenson, the Tory candidate, suggests that traditional local issues – similar to those used in the campaign that won Hartlepool for the Tories – work with all communities.
“When I’m talking to voters about the reasons to vote Conservative and those reasons are because we can have an MP who’s got experience in and outside of politics, and can work with the government to get the investment that we need, and that’s a really positive message that people are warming to and people are saying to me now more and more that we do need change locally after a quarter of a century of Labour.”
Given the local and national polls, it might be that the community chooses this prospectus within days.
But the Labour candidate, Ms Leadbeater, told Sky News she believes the by-election may have an impact on the community long after next Friday.
“The thing that I’m really clear about is when the circus leaves town, when all these people who didn’t know where the place was three or four weeks ago, when they’ve gone, hey, I have to live here.”