Batley and Spen by-election: Labour’s Muslim vote collapsing as Palestine – and potholes – cause anger

Kim Leadbeater is standing for the party in the seat where her sister was killed, but support is being squeezed by the arrival of George Galloway. By Colin Drury in Batley

Saturday 26 June 2021 11:14
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<p>Labour leader Keir Starmer with local candidate Kim Leadbeater</p>

Labour leader Keir Starmer with local candidate Kim Leadbeater

There are few immediate similarities between the Al-Hikmah Centre in Batley and the Ward Jackson Wetherspoon pub in Hartlepool.

But ask people at this Muslim welfare charity about politics this weekend, and one sentiment is almost identical to that expressed in the northeast boozer six weeks ago.

“The Labour Party feels we are safe in their pocket,” says Nadeem Raja, general manager at the centre. “And I think they are about to find out that, actually, we are not in their pocket: that they cannot count on us if they do not listen to us.”

Almost two months after Sir Keir Starmer’s party suffered a historic by-election defeat in the red wall seat of Hartlepool, it is now facing another possible kicking here in the West Yorkshire mill town constituency of Batley and Spen.

Only this time, it will not be solely down to a shifting white working-class vote. Rather, another key component in the party’s traditional electoral coalition appears to be on the verge of desertion: the Muslim working-class vote.

Labour hopes a popular local candidate here will help it retain the seat – current majority: 3,525 – at the 1 July by-election. Kim Leadbeater is the younger sister of Jo Cox, the much-loved MP who was murdered by a right-wing extremist in this constituency in 2016. Pertinently, the 45-year-old is the only one, out of 16 runners and riders, who actually lives in the constituency.

But voters of south Asian origin make up more than 20 per cent of the electorate here – and many are disillusioned, both at Sir Keir’s stance on international issues and at what is felt to be ongoing neglect under 24 years of different Labour MPs.

Few, it is thought, will move to the Tories, but the arrival of another candidate – George Galloway – has offered an option with apparent appeal.

“There will be a big protest vote,” says Raja, whose organisation serves 3,000 households and has seven mosques affiliated to it. “No one thinks George Galloway is the answer to all their problems, but this is a way to show some power, by voting for someone who is a champion of the Muslim community across the country, and internationally as well.”

It seems almost impossible that the firebrand Scot – who lives north of the border – could win. At present, his party, the Workers Party of Britain, is barely polling at a sufficient level to see its deposit returned. His success in winning Bethnal Green and Bow in 2005, and Bradford West in 2012, does not seem likely to be repeated here. More plausibly, a vote for him may ultimately allow Ryan Stephenson, the all-but-invisible Conservative candidate, to win via the back door.

Yet these considerations appear to have been factored in by many voters.

“Whoever wins, they get what? Two-and-a-half years until the next election, when everything changes again anyway,” says Munir Daji, a project coordinator in the town and, until recently, a Labour member of 30 years. “But a vote for him [Galloway], for me, it’s about showing I won’t just vote for someone because they’re wearing a red rosette any more. It’s demanding more.”

Time and again, three main issues are raised here: police, potholes and Palestine.

There are, people say, not enough of the first, and too many of the second.

“There are holes on my road that are almost as old as I am, you know what I mean?” says 40-year-old Juned Kholvadia at his barber shop, Al Habib Hair Art. “Nothing gets done because why would they? They know they have our vote anyway, so why bother with us?”

And of the third concern, Palestine? It is on this that anger often appears most searing. Many believe Sir Keir has not spoken up on the issue enough. “Muslims are getting killed,” says Kholvadia. “And he says nothing. At least George speaks out about it.”

A fourth ‘P’, too, has caused some mild discontent: process. Labour waived its usual rules to allow Leadbeater to stand. It meant that two local councillors, both from the south Asian community, did not make the shortlist. “Hard workers, well-liked,” says one supporter. “How can it be fair that they weren’t even given a chance?”

Nadeem Raja outside the Al-Hikmah Centre

Campaigning at Batley train station on a warm summer’s day, Leadbeater herself is aware that this combination of local and international grievances makes for a potent and unpredictable electoral brew.

“I think he [Galloway] has focused very heavily on the horrific situation in Palestine – and let’s be clear, it is a horrific situation,” she says. “But Batley and Spen needs an MP who can represent local people on local, national and international issues, and I am that voice.”

Could someone living in the capital with no notable tie to the area do that? A diplomatic pause.

“I think, sadly, there are a number of people who are going to come here and try and sow division and cause problems for our community,” says Leadbeater. “And actually this area needs an MP who can bring people together. We need to build bridges, not cause division.”

On Friday, she was filmed being followed down the street and heckled, prompting the Labour leader to tweet that “George Galloway’s poisonous politics have no place in our country.” The “abuse” she has faced, he said, is disgraceful.

Leadbeater, a wellbeing coach who now runs the Jo Cox Foundation, spent some time considering whether to chuck her hat in the ring. Something her sister said has long played on her mind – “If good people don’t put themselves forward, what do we end up with?” – but she was also aware of the uniquely emotional toll she would subject herself to by running.

“But you can’t live your life in fear,” she says. “If you did, you’d never leave the house. The vast majority of people are kind, compassionate, caring. If you give in to the fear and the anger – which I do feel, I’m honest about that – if you give into the hatred or allow your actions to be influenced by it, you allow even more to be taken from you. I don’t want to live like that.”

So she put her name forward? “I kept thinking how I would feel if someone who doesn’t love this area in the way I do, someone who doesn’t understand it like I do, how would I feel if that person got this job,” she replies. “And I realised that would really upset me.”

Juned Kholvadia: ‘They know they have our vote, so why bother with us?’

The decision electrified the early days of the campaign.

Supporters say she is both charismatic and relatable. Certainly today – decked in jeans, T-shirt and blazer, and clutching an early morning can of Pepsi Max (“caffeine!”) – she doesn’t give off a Westminster bubble vibe.

“I was so relieved that we would have a proper candidate,” says Ken Lowe, secretary of the Friends of Batley Station (a group which itself was founded by Cox) and himself a lifelong Labour voter. “I knew she’d be able to connect with people. She’s real.”

Yet in the last fortnight her momentum has perceptibly slowed. The Tories have taken a six-point lead, according to one poll released last weekend. They are on 47 per cent; Labour on 41. In a neat encapsulation of the impact Galloway may have, he himself sits on six per cent – the exact difference between the two main parties.

“He calls himself a socialist?” spits Lowe, a retired 71-year-old community officer and grandfather-of-six. “He’s doing his best to get the Tories in power. Then he’ll never be seen round here again after 1 July.”

Which brings us nicely to the Conservatives. “What of them?” you may well ask.

While Boris Johnson visited the massive Fox’s Biscuits factory in the constituency on 18 June, promising to “level up”, Stephenson himself – a councillor in nearby Leeds – appears to have been told by party chiefs to keep quiet, avoid answering questions, and try to win by default. He has done no major media, and, like Galloway, has not responded to The Independent’s request for an interview.

Yet such silence worked for Jill Mortimer, the party’s new MP in Hartlepool, and – shadowy as it may be – there appears to be no reason that it shouldn’t work here too.

In the constituency’s smaller towns – places like Liversedge and Gomersal – Tory support looks especially solid, while the blue vote will likely be bolstered by the residual impact of Brexit in an area that voted 54.7 per cent to leave the EU.

Indeed, as Leadbeater heads off from the train station to visit a local school, she acknowledges the battle ahead.

“It’s tough,” she says, as a rueful smile slowly becomes a grin. “But then, you know, I’m tough as old boots. I’m Yorkshire. And I know I’m the right person for this job.”

The article was amended on 28 June 2021. It previously said that Kim Leadbeater was the only candidate who ‘is actually from’ the constituency. This is incorrect: she is the only one who lives there. Yorkshire Party candidate Corey Robinson was born and brought up in the constituency.

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