Labour after Batley and Spen

Submitted by AWL on 13 July, 2021 - 11:27 Author: Mohan Sen
Emily Thornberry and Naz Shah

We are glad Labour’s Kim Leadbeater won the by-election in Batley and Spen, West Yorkshire, on 1 July. But Keir Starmer’s triumphalist rhetoric (“Labour is back… a fantastic victory”) is divorced from reality.

Labour won 35.3% to the Tories’ 34.4%, its lowest ever percentage in the constituency. In 2017 it won 55.5% and in 2019 42.7%. On this basis the party would lose dozens of seats in a general election.

The trend of Labour losing ground in by-elections continues, despite the Tories’ decade in government and grim Covid record. It may even be that Labour held on partly because some right-wing voters migrated to foul demagogue George Galloway.

Galloway, previously MP in nearby Bradford West, pitched to right-wing voters with attacks on Labour’s supposed “wokeness” and right-wing messages on crime and Brexit. In 2017 15.4% supported candidates to the right of the Tories, but this time the four far-right candidates got tiny votes, while the Tories slipped a little.

A few leftish Labour voters, of various backgrounds, may have voted Galloway out of frustration. And Galloway pitched to Muslim voters with a mix of identity politics, international issues including Palestine and Kashmir, and hostility to LGBT rights.

Galloway’s populist mix of right- and “left-wing” stances, chameleon-like political shifting, and willingness to say different and contradictory things to different people served him well. Fresh from running a Scottish election campaign headed by a Tory landowner and advocating a Tory vote where it did not stand, he still had a subtext claiming he stood for “a new working-class politics”!

A lot of media coverage focused on Muslim voters. Solidarity has attacked the idea that all Muslims alienated from Labour are motivated by right-wing positions on issues like LGBT rights. In this by-election Starmer’s disgraceful pandering to the Hindu right over Kashmir became an issue: many Muslims in Batley are of Indian background. (We wish Galloway’s denial of the genocide against the Uyghur people had also become an issue!)

However, to pretend that anti-LGBT views are no more prevalent among Muslims than among the wider population is absurd. The issues need untangling honestly and sensitively.

Those who stood up to Galloway’s attacks on trans rights, his homophobic dogwhistles, and anti-LGBT campaigning by his supporters, should be congratulated. The Muslim women in the constituency who spoke out against the right-wing Muslim men attacking Labour deserve high praise, not airbrushing from the record.

This adds to our pleasure at Labour’s victory over Galloway and the Tories. But Labour did not stand in any sense for working-class politics in the by-election. It did not even stand for strongly democratic liberalism. Its disarray on Kashmir and insincere attempts to row back, the whispering to the media about Muslims and antisemitism, and unwillingness to raise opportune issues from the Uyghurs to migrants’ rights to the Police Bill all highlighted the party leadership’s lack of democratic ideals.

Labour once again had very little to say about what it positively stands for. It did poorly because few feel enthusiastic about it. Labour will be “back” only when the Labour left regroups and pushes the party to take up pro-working class demands.

• See also: The Chesham and Amersham by-election and Labour

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