Batley and Spen: all politics is local, except when it isn’t

By David Osland

Received wisdom has it that all politics is local. One of Labour’s multiple problems in Batley and Spen is that it isn’t.

The constituency, all in all another brick in the Red Wall, has been Labour since 1997. After Thursday’s by-election, it probably won’t be any longer.

The campaign has been a risible concatenation of incoherence and half-hearted bumbling from the start. So poor indeed that it may cost not just the seat but Keir Starmer’s head as well, if not this Friday then not too far in the future.

There are the circumstances in which the by-election arose, for a start. Sitting MP Tracy Brabin upped and outed before the end of her term to run for mayor of West Yorkshire instead.

That was not a good look to many residents, and Labour effectively chose an unnecessary by-election at a time when the Tories are knocking seven shades out of it in the polls. Rookie stuff.

Then there are the question marks over the candidate. Kim Leadbeater wasn’t even a Labour Party member until a few weeks ago. That alone should have debarred her from consideration.

But she was steamrollered through as the sister of Jo Cox, a previous Labour MP for the seat, who was murdered by a far right terrorist in 2016.

Leadbeater’s campaign initially concentrated – to the exclusion of virtually all else – on her local roots, with ‘From Batley and Spen, for Batley and Spen’ adopted as the official slogan.

That turned out to be another blunder. Instead, the opening weeks were dominated by international politics, rather than cleaning up dog poo. And no, I’m not joking. That topic has featured in at least one Labour campaign video.

For the substantial Muslim minority in the Batley and Spen electorate, Israel/Palestine and Kashmir are the big hot button value issues. Incredibly enough, Labour didn’t see that coming either.

I have never been keen on ostensibly innocent ‘know what I’m saying?’ hyper-localism anyway, having seen first-hand the use of the tactic by the Liberal Democrats at municipal level.

If many, perhaps most, Muslims in Batley and Spen are Yorkshire born and bred, their parents or grandparents will not have been.

Nobody would doubt Leadbeater’s anti-racist credentials. But if nothing else, let’s just say messaging like this lacks a certain deftness of touch.

Enter George Galloway, fresh from calling for a Tory vote in Scotland and now openly out to take down Sir Keir.

Israel/Palestine dominated Labour politics in the Corbyn era, and Starmer has sought to defuse the tension, declaring at the hustings that he supports Zionism without qualification.

The words were designed to express support for Israel’s right to exist. But they can easily be misrepresented as unconditional support for the frequently brutal actions of the Israeli government. Galloway has made sure they have been.

Meanwhile, allowing unnamed Labour officials to brief journalists in hostile publications that Muslims are antisemites has been, to deploy Alistair Campbell’s favourite euphemism, unhelpful.

The socialist solution for Kashmir centres on self-determination for the Kashmiri people, whether you get to that conclusion via Woodrow Wilson or Vladimir Ilyich Lenin.

Instead, one of the first significant developments in Labour foreign policy under Starmer was a reset on this point, to placate Modi-friendly Hindu swing voters. The wages of false expediency are now fully visible.

There is one thing Labour did get absolutely right, though, and that is support for the openly lesbian Leadbeater in the face of the ugly hostility she has suffered on this score.

The debate over how far Labour should accommodate reactionary sensibilities is nothing new, especially when they seem driven by religion.

Traditionally, Catholic MPs or those representing large numbers of Catholic voters – in practice Irish – have been cut slack on abortion and gay rights.

Under Starmer, Labour has explicitly courted social conservatism with a turn to flag, faith and families. And for ‘families’, the subtext is heterosexual nuclear families. Now this insidious drift has bitten back.

Thankfully, some differences really are too important to split, and the leadership stood firm, condemning what has been happening on the street.

So far, Labour’s biggest counterargument to Galloway has been that a vote for him will let the Tories in. Given that the bulk of his supporters are intentionally sticking two fingers up to the Labour Party, I’m unpersuaded that petty homilies will have the desired impact.

In any case, the excuse that some other candidate ‘split the vote’ is the weakest shot in any loser’s locker. Ultimately, the sole reason politicians don’t win elections is that they don’t convince enough people to vote for them. Anything else is spurious rationalisation.

Recognition that Batley and Spen is a lost cause – and that Labour could even finish third – has revived speculation of a leadership contest, either immediately or some way down the line.

Angela Rayner, Lisa Nandy and Dawn Butler have all denied media reports that they are on manoeuvres. To what degree butter wouldn’t melt in their mouths, I cannot say. But the expectation is that a contest is now more likely than not.

Whether the hard left enters the fray depends on whether Starmer quits or is challenged. Only in the former scenario, with a lower nominations threshold obtaining, can it realistically hope to get on the ballot paper.

Seeing as I started this piece with a cliche, I’ll end on one too. A week is a long time in politics; this week will be Keir Starmer’s longest week yet.

David Osland is a member of Hackney North & Stoke Newington CLP and a long-time left wing journalist and author. Follow him on Twitter at @David__Osland

Image: George Galloway. Source: Stop The War – 09 – George Galloway. Author: David Hunt from Warwickshire, UK, licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic license.

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