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Why Labour may lose Batley and Spen

Submitted by martin on 22 June, 2021 - 6:06 Author: Luke Hardy
Polling station

On 1 July we will see a crucial by-election for Labour in Batley and Spen, coming soon after Labour lost the Hartlepool by-election and did poorly in the May council elections.

The by-election is happening because the sitting Labour MP, Tracy Brabin, won the West Yorkshire mayoral election.

At the last election Labour won with 42% of the vote, and a narrow-ish majority of 3,000-odd the Tories. But right-wing pro-Brexit parties - the Tories, the Brexit Party and the Heavy Wollen District Independents - won over 50% of the vote between them.

The Heavy Woollen District independents grew out of the local UKIP mixing localism with right-wing hot-button issues about veterans and against immigration. In 2019 their candidate Paul Halloran got 12% of the vote. There is an anti-Asian tinge to some of the HWDI's campaigning, with specifically anti Muslim dog-whistles, for example on halal meat in school. Neither the Brexit Party nor HWDI are standing this time.

The "Red Wall" stereotype of northern seats tends to flatten real differences. Batley and Spen is different from Hartlepool in at least two important ways.

It is a much more multi-racial constituency than Hartlepool. Batley East Ward has a 54% Asian population, Batley West 33%. Heckmondwike also has an Asian community. Much of the rest of the Spen valley is overwhelmingly white.

In the period running up to 2010 the BNP won two council seats in Heckmondwike and did well in some other areas of the constituency. There was a big mobilisation by the Labour movement behind campaigns against the BNP in which Jo Cox and her sister Kim Leadbeater, Labour's candidate this time round, were active. The BNP were defeated, but then in 2016 Jo Cox, by then MP for Batley and Spen was murdered by a far right terrorist.

Tensions in the local area have been heightened recently around Batley Grammar School. Protests started in March after cartoons of the Prophet Mohammed were shown during a discussion on blasphemy. Elements of the Islamist right seized on the situation, and the teacher received death threats. The teacher was suspended but has since been reinstated.

The majority of local people from a Muslim background opposed the death threats, and there have been attempts made locally to calm the tensions. But there are five candidates standing who could be described as far right and are seeking to exploit the tensions.

Tommy Robinson, former leader of the English Defence League (EDL), is coming on 26 June to campaign for Anne Marie Waters' "For Britain". It's unlikely "For Britain" will win many votes from the Tories.

Labour's candidate Kim Leadbeater is popular locally. Labour's campaign has been focused around very local issues and has noticeably not centred Keir Starmer or the party's national profile. Labour's vote appears to be holding up in many areas of the constituency, but that will not be enough if the Tories manage to hoover up the votes that would have gone to the HWDI and the Brexit Party.

Labour'ss troubles have been made worse by George Galloway entering the election race. Galloway is standing for the Workers' Party, a lash-up between his personal following and the ultra-Stalinist and nationalist Communist Party of Great Britain (Marxist-Leninist). Both of them supported the Brexit Party in the last European Election and out of that came this marriage of convenience.

Galloway has spent much of the last few years cultivating a "Red-Brown" front and links with elements of the hard right. such as a relationship with Nigel Farage and Steve Bannon. This time he is standing as a self-proclaimed champion of the Muslim community and opportunistically attacking Labour sometimes from the left. Galloway won in 2012 in neighbouring Bradford East.

Keir Starmer has not taken anti-Muslim racism inside the Labour Party seriously or been vigorous in attacking the Tories' Islamophobia. He shifted Labour's position on Kashmir to a more pro-Indian slant just as Modi's troops put Indian occupied Kashmir under martial law and overthrew the limited self-government that did exist.

Galloway has misrepresented Labour, and Kim Leadbeater has felt forced to put out a letter to constituents making clear her support for Palestinian rights and statehood.

There are reports of Galloway supporters pushing antisemitic and homophobic rumours and conspiracy theories about Kim Leadbeater, Keir Starmer, and Labour in general. It is wrong to suggest these opinions characterise anything but a fringe of the Muslim voters alienated from Labour.

Most of the alienation is based on the party's failure to stand up for its working-class Muslim voters at a time when they are the target of a culture war by the Government and right-wing press.

Even with all the valid criticisms of Starmer, it's important for socialists and trade unionists to campaign for a Labour vote, against the nationalist-authoritarian Tories with their attacks on basic democratic freedoms, the far right seeking to sow racial division in the area, and George Galloway's narcissistic Red-Brown nationalist politics.

If Labour does lose the election, much of the blame should be put squarely on Keir Starmer and the right-wing direction he has taken the party in.

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