Labour’s close shave in Batley

A leadership crisis has been averted for now, as Labour cling on in Batley and Spen, reports Mike Phipps

Despite opinion polls giving the Tories a clear lead less than two weeks ago, Labour hung on to the seat of Batley and Spen by just 323 votes in yesterday’s by-election. Leading Tories were forced to admit that Matt Hancock’s resignation as Health Secretary after breaking government rules on social distancing may have cost them victory.

Kim Leadbetter, the sister of Jo Cox who as MP for the constituency was murdered by a far right terrorist in 2016, held the seat for Labour with 35% of the vote. This was down 7% from the share of the vote Labour gained in 2019, when the Party had a majority of 3,525. The Tories came second, with 34% of the vote.

It was still a high vote for the Tories, given that the Party has had a rough few weeks in the headlines and did very little campaigning in the constituency. They were essentially content to let George Galloway do the work of tearing chunks out of Labour.

George Galloway’s so-called Workers Party came third with 22%, or 8,000 votes.

Galloway, who fought a divisive campaign, refused to accept the result. Speaking outside the count, he said he would apply to have the result set aside by the courts, citing a “false statement” made about him during the campaign.

It was a high stakes by-election for Labour. Had they lost the seat, it would have been the first time in post-war history that a government had won two by-elections from the Opposition in a single parliamentary term. Coming hard on the heels of the Tory win from Labour in Hartlepool, and Labour’s near wipe-out in Chesham and Amersham, this would have brought to a head fundamental questions about Keir Starmer’s leadership of the Party. Potential rivals were reportedly ready to mount a challenge.

Many pundits were confounded by the result. Just four days ago, the ever-offensive and this time hilariously inaccurate Rod Liddle, interviewed in Spiked, announced: “I would stake my life on Labour losing in Batley,” adding, “Labour will come third, easily beaten by George Galloway… Labour will be lucky to keep its deposit.”

Speaking after her win, newly-elected Kim Leadbetter said, “Sadly there has been some nastiness during this by-election, and there are some divisions that need to be healed.” This is an understatement about one of the most bitterly fought by-elections in living memory, marred by violence and bigotry.

Alarm bells began ringing for Labour when core Muslim voters, who make up around 20% of the local electorate, were reported to be deserting in droves the Party they had overwhelmingly supported at the last election.  Feedback from the doorstep was that many were fed up with being taken for granted and wanted to give Labour a bloody nose.

Opinion polls predicted a Tory win, with Boris Johnson trusted more than Keir Starmer on all key policy areas, including even the NHS.  

As usual, the Party leadership had its own theories about why it was polling so poorly in a seat with a significant Muslim vote. A Labour official was reported to have briefed the media that Labour expected to lose the by-election, because of a “backlash” against “what Keir has been doing on antisemitism”. Muslim Council of Britain spokesman Miqdaad Versi described the comment as “astonishing”, adding that it showed that the Party couldn’t be bothered to actually listen to Muslim voters.

It’s also worth recalling that Muslim voters had only a few years ago given overwhelming support to the Party under Ed Miliband, who was not only Jewish but called himself a friend of Israel.

Israel-Palestine was certainly in the minds of some voters. The recent bombardment of Gaza by Israel killed nearly 250 people. It led to some of the biggest demonstrations in support of the Palestinian people Britain has ever seen and there was widespread dismay that Labour’s leadership had not spoken out enough against the Israeli attacks. If this was not already an election issue, George Galloway was determined to make it one. Opinion polling on this in the constituency may have been in Starmer’s mind when, speaking in the House of Commons on June 9th, he called for the establishment of a Palestinian state.

Galloway of course is no stranger to controversy, having been accused of rape apolgism and sympathy for Middle Eastern dictators, among many other things, and having called for a Tory vote in Scotland this year. Yet he is a very experienced campaigner: despite having been thrown out of the Labour Party, he successfully ran in two previous elections, each time taking the seat from Labour in constituencies with large Asian populations.

This time he was also very well-funded. According to a Novara Media report, his campaign was run out of three separate buildings donated by local industrialists, with ten full-time organisers in the constituency.

Galloway made much of Palestine and Kashmir, another issue on which many Muslims felt let down by Starmer’s retreat from Labour Conference policy, but it was mainly local issues that dominated doorstep conversations – the closure of Batley and Dewsbury Magistrates’ Court closed in 2012, the downgrading of Dewsbury and District A&E in 2017, the closure of Batley police station in 2018. All this happened under the watch of Labour-controlled Kirklees Council.

In Batley and Spen, Galloway’s message that Labour banked its core Asian vote and paid only lip service to its needs resonated. Two local Asian Labour councillors had been excluded from Labour’s shortlist, making Kim Leadbetter the only local candidate.  While she was selected overwhelmingly, she had only recently rejoined the Party, which meant that the rule on length of membership had to be waived in order for her to be able to stand.

On June 16th, a number of local Muslim and pro-Palestinian organisations issued a letter to Starmer warning that the votes of Muslim had been “taken for granted” by the Party. They also cited recent polling by Survation and the Labour Muslim Network that showed support dropping for the Party among British Muslims, with only 22% saying they had a favourable attitude towards Starmer’s leadership, while 29% were unfavourable. The poll showed that while the Labour Party as a whole had a strong net favourability rating among British Muslims of +42%, Starmer had a net favourability of -7% among these voters.

The campaign grew increasingly unpleasant in its final days. Kim Leadbetter was verbally abused, particularly on LGBTQ+ issues, and chased to her car. Other Labour canvassers had eggs thrown at them and were pushed to the ground and kicked, according to Tracy Brabin, the newly elected mayor of West Yorkshire who was out campaigning.

An open letter from Muslim women in Batley and Spen circulated, calling out the actions of a “loud minority”’ of Muslim men who had failed to practise tolerance. ““Misogynism and mob mentality have no place in any decent community,” the letter added.

Allegations of dirty tricks flew as Labour’s campaign was targeted by fake leaflets and the Party was accused by one of its own MPs of using “dog-whistle racism” to win votes. This was in response to Labour’s distribution of a flyer to Muslim voters showing Boris Johnson with India’s nationalist prime minister, Narendra Modi, in 2019, along with the message: “Don’t risk a Tory MP who is not on your side.”

Towards the end of the campaign, there were signs that Galloway may have over-reached in his attempts to stir up a culture war. In one stump speech, he denounced the teaching of primary school children about anal sex and masturbation – which, by the way, simply does not happen. The speech included a number of anti-LGBTQ dog whistles and overtly transphobic comments. He even denounced journalist Owen Jones, who had made a fairly balanced documentary about the by-election, as “loathsome.” Canvassers report that concerns about the so-called ‘woke agenda’ were not being raised on the doorstep but exclusively by some of the candidates.

Keir Starmer called it a “fantastic result”, which puts a very positive gloss on what is a really close shave for Labour. Predictably, Peter Mandelson tried to blame Corbynites for allegedly failing to support Labour’s campaign with sufficient fervour. But that is unlikely to wash.

Responding to the result, Momentum stated: “Thanks to the work of hundreds of grassroots activists and a committed local candidate, Labour has held Batley and Spen. But whilst it’s great we held the seat, the decline in our vote share is cause for concern… This narrow victory must act as a wakeup call for the leadership: we can no longer take Labour’s core vote, particularly Muslim voters, for granted.”

Keir Starmer can heave a big sigh of relief that this result has narrowly averted a full-blown leadership crisis and challenge. But for how long?

Mike Phipps is editor of the Iraq Occupation Focus e-newsletter, available at book For the Many: Preparing Labour for Power was published by OR Books in 2018.

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