June 29, 2021   7 mins

Batley and Spen, the latest by-election Labour might lose, takes the narrative on from Hartlepool: from alienation to conflagration.

This constituency is a collection of towns and villages south of Leeds, known once for a thriving textile industry. Batley is the major town, made of blackened stone. It has fine Victorian buildings — as ever in the North, you see past glory — amid decline. The Fox’s biscuit factory looms like a drawing from a child’s story book. The Prime Minister, ever soothed near food, toured it last week with his candidate Ryan Stephenson, a councillor in Leeds, who is willing to be interviewed by a biscuit, but usually refuses to meet journalists.

It is self-seeking and short-sighted: a mistake. There is a vacuum to be filled because Tory and Labour are a functional absence. I come upon them only through campaigning literature on lamp posts and under foot: it floats around the constituency like tumbleweed. Party leaders come for photo opportunities so there is evidence for posterity that they exist. Press officers rarely respond, even to requests for information. So, others come to fill the void. Their complaints are superficially rational — opposition is easy — but they are here not to soothe but to ignite. George Galloway, a charismatic, wants to exploit the racism British Muslims face because major parties will not grapple with it. Laurence Fox is here too, offering support to the teacher at Batley Grammar whose use of an image of the prophet Mohammed led to protests at the school, and the teacher choosing exile from the town. It is astonishing to see Fox and Galloway on the same platform but, as self-defined mavericks, perhaps it is not so strange.

Last week, the Labour candidate Kim Leadbeater, a well-being coach and personal trainer, was harassed in the street by a Muslim anti LGTBQ activist, demanding that she condemn LGBTQ education in schools. (Leadbeater is gay.) “The colour of blood is what you are,” he said. Now she has police protection. Labour sources say Galloway supporters are repeatedly driving past the campaign office; once they crowded in to harass them. Labour activists, including Muslims, were pelted with eggs and one was beaten. In white areas, fake Labour leaflets are circulated, saying, “Labour supports taking the knee”, and “The Labour Party believes that it is high time that white people acknowledged their privilege”. Labour itself published a leaflet showing Boris Johnson shaking hands with India’s Hindu nationalist Prime Minister Narendra Modi with the caption: “the risk of voting for anyone but Labour is clear”. Labour Friends of India asked for its withdrawal.

It is a co-incidence, or perhaps, worse, an omen, that this is the constituency whose Labour MP Jo Cox was murdered in 2016 by a white supremacist outside, of all places, a public library. Leadbeater is Cox’s sister. I wonder if it is another mistake from a Labour Party that embraced centralisation, a wound that took too long to show itself: the wrong candidate in the wrong place. Many Labour supporters feel unseen by the party they once embraced as family. Is it seemly to emphasise family ties, through a woman who only joined the party this year? What happened to Jo Cox is a tragedy, but her sister’s candidacy is still morbid nepotism, and it is unpopular with some voters. It takes politics further away from them, and into someone’s else’s personal narrative. “I can’t vote for someone who jumped on a bandwagon,” says one former Labour voter, “the sister of someone quite good.”

Batley is superficially sleepy. The once bustling market has declined; the police station has gone. Most commercial activity is sucked into a vast supermarket, with the now mandatory support for a foodbank in the window. (More than a third of children live in poverty in Yorkshire, and most of them are in working families.)

Alienation is obvious as you wander Batley and Spen. The young SDP candidate Ollie Purser tells me: “The biggest demographic I meet is people who aren’t going to vote and before I can even give them a leaflet the door is shut.” I follow him as he campaigns in Birstall, an estate of red-brick houses dominated by a sign that says NO BALL GAMES, and in an area where people, according to Purser, either say, “There’s nought for kids to do”, or they else they say: “There’s too much anti-social behaviour”. The main issues here are public services — the Liberal Democrat candidate Tom Gordon says constituents are using Dentaid, a charity that usually operates in developing countries — and whether to build a new Amazon distribution centre for more air pollution and ill-paid, exhausting jobs.

“You all talk shite,” says a man when he opens the door to Purser, though genially. “I have no interest in voting whatsoever.” “Anything to do with working-class culture gets chopped up,” mourns the next, though he takes a leaflet. “I never go out,” says the next, “I’m a Mum”. As we leave two children wave from the window. “I’ve never voted in my life,” says the next potential voter, who must be 70, and Purser patiently explains the principles of a polling station to her. Even when voters do enter a polling station, Purser says, “they are always holding their nose. That’s the problem. [People] biting their lip and putting their cross next to the name because they hate the other team more”. These people are, Purser says, “dislocated. Atomised. Individualised.” As if to illustrate this point, there are two local Facebook groups dedicated to the town: Batley Matters and Batley Really Matters. Even the advocacy groups have split.

In the middle, preening calmly amid the chaos, is George Galloway, the former Labour MP fighting an Oedipal battle with the party he once loved. Though he remains the same, he changes parties more often than he changes his hat: from Labour to Respect to the “economically radical and socially conservative” Workers’ Party.

Galloway hopes to take Labour votes from the Asian community that make up 20% of the electorate here. He believes they are vexed by what they perceive as Labour’s lack of support for Palestine and lack of action on Islamophobia. One woman says her five-year nephew saw a tabloid headline, and said: “Auntie, look, we are terrorists. It says there”. This has reached a tipping point for Galloway supporters, with Palestine as the flashpoint. Shops in Batley are papered with pro-Palestine messages, and it is not, for these voters, something remote. It is, at least partially, a proxy conflict. In Palestine’s suffering they see themselves: it is a paradigm of their perceived powerlessness. One woman explains the change in dynamic: “We’re not your servants anymore.” Another woman says, “Obviously Israel own everything. It is an untouchable country.” She, though, will vote Conservative. I doubt this view is as widespread as Galloway would like.

Outside Galloway’s campaign office I find a mass of photographs of Galloway on sticks, so they look like a bus station with only one destination: a Galloway victory. I meet him in Starbucks. He is all twinkling vanity; he reminds me of Boris Johnson. Like Johnson, he likes campaigning more than governing; like Johnson, victory over the enemy is not a moral but a psychological imperative. The chase is all. If policy alone was his aim, he would add his voice to the SDP perhaps — “we respect them”, he says — or the Yorkshire Party — campaigning for devolution through its candidate Corey Robinson — or even Labour itself, prostrate but still breathing.

He speaks in perfect paragraphs, emitting campaign literature laced with memoir. Galloway does not converse, not really. He orates, mirrors, boasts. Labour is now a party of “trans-maniacs” who deplore the British voters and the British flag. Labour has, he says, no leadership. They are, rather, “a series of people sitting in circles. I remember vividly Tony Blair’s wife shouting at me to stop shouting, when in fact all I was doing was speaking clearly in the way that one does when one is making a speech. I remember it vividly even though it was more than forty years ago”. I wonder if this, at least partially, is why he is here. He has a long memory.

He also remembers a woman outing herself as a lesbian at Conference decades ago. “Everyone clapped. I remember saying to the fellow next to me, ‘Why is everyone clapping? Should I announce what I like sexually? Would they clap?’ The personal,” he mourns, “became substituted for what united all of us — whoever we slept with”. And yet here he is, effectively trying to deliver a Conservative MP to Westminster, because of who he is, and I can’t think of anything more personal.

Is he concerned about this? “I draw no distinction between Keir Starmer and Boris Johnson,” he says, “in fact Boris Johnson is better at it than Kier Starmer would be”. He compares Johnson’s campaigning in the Fox’s biscuit factory to how Starmer would do it, if he had done it: “He would have would have walked around like a robot, a desiccated calculating machine, while Boris was practically breakdancing on the factory floor”. For Galloway, Starmer’s failures are ever expanding, like space. Where they do not exist — the biscuit factory, for instance, where he did not appear and so could not fail — he imagines them.

I offer the decline of child poverty under Blair as an example of an important difference between Labour and Tory policy. “I didn’t say there was no difference,” he says, “I said I make no distinction. The difference is this,” he explains, “the Tory wears on his sleeve what he is. Labour are wolves in sheep’s clothing and it’s our job to tear away that sheep’s clothing and reveal the wolf within”. He changes his mind: “it’s not really a wolf, it’s more a jackal. The jackal within has to be exposed”. The jackal feeds on the dead. I think he is projecting.

Eventually, after multiple emails and telephone calls and knocks on campaign office doors, I do meet a Labour activist, though by accident: a white man walking his Labrador in the park. He too speaks in perfect sentences, as if the relative silence on the street is creating rhetoric straining to be heard.

“The Tories,” he says, “are hoping to win by default, and they are hoping that Mr Galloway will help deliver that for them. He’s incapable of winning the election and if he wants to play a small part in electing a Tory candidate,” – his anger is obvious, though he speaks calmly — “for a party whose leader insults Muslim women, refuses to deal with Islamophobia in the Conservative Party and will do nothing to defend the causes including that of Palestine which Mr Galloway professes to hold dear then that’s up to him”.

That night there is a hustings in a community centre with only one candidate: George Galloway. His wife videos him for posterity. Kim Leadbeater pulled out, and Galloway seems both delighted and appalled. The Yorkshire Party candidate Corey Robinson says he accepted the invitation but was not given the address, and so wandered around Batley looking for it until he gave up and went to visit his family. That is not mentioned.

The interviewer thanks Galloway, whose rhetoric rises to this tiny crisis. “It is I who should thank you,” he says, “and commiserate with you for the great insult that the Labour Party has just delivered half an hour ago”.

He says Labour’s loss will cause an earthquake to destroy its leader. “Why do I care about that?” he asks himself. It’s a good question. The answer is, he says, that the country needs an opposition and, “Britain currently doesn’t have an opposition because the Opposition Leader is no leader at all. He’s so wooden that birds are trying to nest in him. He’s so robotic he might as well be speaking through a speak-your-weight machine. His words go nowhere, move nobody, persuade nobody.”

He continues in this vein for an hour while around him, in a vacuum made of cowardice, the major parties flail, and, in Labour’s case, sink to his tactics. This is a filthy by-election, and only one man is made happy by it. It will not be enough.

Tanya Gold is a freelance journalist.