• Fri. Jan 20th, 2023

A backlash against toxic campaigning and the Hancock affair gave Labour activists hope in Batley and Spen, shifting the political dial

Jul 4, 2021

LabourA backlash against toxic campaigning and the Hancock affair gave Labour activists hope in Batley and Spen, shifting the political dial
The Labour candidate in the Batley and Spen byelection, Kim Leadbeater, was not exactly full of optimism as she headed to the count at 4.20am on Friday morning. The final days of Labours campaign in the West Yorkshire seat, where her sister Jo Cox was the MP until she was murdered by a rightwing extremist in 2016, had in many ways been heartening for the party. Activists and Labour MPs had arrived from all over the country for one final push and late on there were signs of a revival of support.
The Matt Hancock affair had clearly hit the Tory vote and people were coming over to Labour to ensure George Galloways Workers Party of Britain, which had been blamed for stoking division over issues including Palestine, Kashmir and gay rights, could not come close to winning. Liberal Democrats were campaigning with Labour. Even some Tories said they were switching to back Leadbeater. The combined effects of Galloways early success in the campaign and Hancocks hypocrisy had galvanised the Labour party machine into action and bolstered its support from unlikely quarters.
But Leadbeater still did not feel victory in her bones. As she was driven to Cathedral House in Huddersfield as dawn broke to be told the voters verdict, she received a text from her friend Lance Price, the former Labour party director of communications, who had been helping her throughout the campaign.
Price was hearing from the partys agent at the count that there were last-minute recounts and that the result would be very close. Price wanted to check that Leadbeater had remembered to print off the main points that they had agreed she should make in her victory speech if Labour had, contrary to expectations, held off the Tories. He was hearing that some wards had been counted late and that in some of these Labour was piling up votes in normally Conservative areas. Youve done incredibly well, Price told her in a text. Have you printed the bullet points I sent? Leadbeater texted back saying: No. I dont think Ill need them, do you? Price was less sure, replying: You might.
Ill wing it, Leadbeater told him. Im good at that.
On arrival, Leadbeater was greeted by a young party worker called Omar Sharif who had, minutes earlier, been told the official result after all the recounts. As he opened the car door to greet her, he told Leadbeater: You are the new MP for Batley and Spen. She had won by just 323 votes.
If there was ever a byelection result capable of reviving a partys morale in an instant, for many Labour people this was it. Expectations of winning this seat had been set very low, and for good reason. The party had seemed to lack confidence, unity, and at national level at least, clear messages.
But immediately Leadbeaters victory was announced it found a voice it had conspicuously lacked for months. It was one about honesty, bravery, integrity, in the face of division and hatred. Labours Leadbeater was local, she was brave, she cared for the community, and knew its people. And she had won.
Keir Starmer speaking after Leadbeaters narrow victory last week. Photograph: Oli Scarff/AFP/Getty Images
At times during the campaign there had been real fears for her safety and she had needed police protection. Her family was understandably worried. She was heckled and chased, and attacked on social media by forces from the extremes, both right and left. For so many reasons, victory felt extra sweet. When the Labour MP Jess Phillips, who had been campaigning in Batley on Thursday, heard the news in the early hours she woke her husband, then immediately texted Leadbeater, saying: I love you.
The contrast with recent disappointments was stark. Hartlepool had gone Tory in May, and then it was the Lib Dems who won in Chesham and Amersham, where Labour polled just 622 votes last month. Losing Batley and Spen would have been disastrous, and triggered talk of leadership challenges to Keir Starmer.
To avoid meltdown there had been a huge rallying to the cause late on. Phillips said that the last-minute effort from MPs and activists had been incredible to behold. When some people suggested calling it day after several hours of door-knocking one evening last week, there was strong resistance. Rachel [Reeves] for one was saying no, were not going yet. Give me another list of voters. We can do this.
There had been early signs that something was changing last weekend. Had the vote come a week earlier, Labour strategists know they would have gone down to defeat. But on Saturday night at a local meeting in Spen Valley, an area with more Tory support than Batley, there was real anger at Hancocks behaviour. There were people saying they could not vote Tory this time because it was one rule for them and one for the rest of us. The Hancock thing was coming up on the doorstep.
George Galloways focus on Palestine was criticised by some Labour voters. Photograph: Gary Calton/the Observer
And there was a growing backlash against attempts to intimidate Leadbeater. After footage emerged of her being chased to her car and heckled about gay rights, some Muslim voters expressed disgust. We had women, young men, Asian men coming into our office saying that is not what we represent, said a Labour official. Decent people who are our supporters. Galloway managed to give the impression that the Asian vote was solidly behind him because those who disagreed with him were just too afraid to put up posters saying vote Labour.
Unsurprisingly, Starmer was up in Batley and Spen on Friday to celebrate Labours success and hailed it as a turning point for his party. After recent disastrous local and byelection results, a slump in the polls, and talk of challenges to his position from the left of the party, the win may have come in the nick of time.
This weekend the party is still emotionally highly charged. Leadbeater will be sworn in as an MP on Monday and is expected to take up her seat next to a plaque in the Commons chamber dedicated to her sister which bears her words More in common. It will be an incredible moment, said a female backbench colleague.
On Saturday, after the Galloway circus had left town, voters were reflecting on a campaign that had left many bemused. But it had also caused a good few to seriously examine where their loyalties should lie from now on.
Steve Phillips, a joiner from the town, said he had always previously voted Conservative, but that both he and his partner chose Labour for the first time ever. He said the reason was Leadbeater. I wouldnt normally vote for them but Kim was the only one who actually came to speak to us, he said. She just seemed like a really lovely lady and seemed to know what changes needed to be made.
Why is Galloway barking about Palestine here in Batley? Its not relevant to people here, he just wanted to chase the Muslim communitys votes
Im not a big politics person but when Ive voted in the past its usually been Tory, said the 36-year-old, as he paced his way along the main street to the railway station after coming to do a morning food shop. The thing I couldnt understand about Galloway was why he was coming here and talking about Palestine its just not relevant to people here. Then I saw a video on YouTube of someone having a go at Kim and being homophobic and I think thats what swung it for me. People have been using the election to come here and cause chaos and division.
Galloways focus on Palestine was mentioned frequently by morning shoppers in Batley just two days after the election. I could never vote for Galloway, said Mark Halloran, a 63-year-old maintenance engineer and lifelong Labour voter. Hes far too divisive. And why is he barking about Palestine here in Batley? Its not relevant to people here, he just wanted to chase the Muslim communitys votes.
The unpleasant rhetoric used over recent weeks was brought up by most voters in Batley, no matter which candidate they chose. Its been a political circus, said Labour voter Deborah Clough, who described Galloway as nothing but an old tomcat trying to cause tensions. I think its disgusting the way some of them played. What happened to Kim with the abuse about gay rights was vile. What sort of society are we living in, where people put politics above being kind and respectful to each other?
But not everyone was won over. Retired soldier Steve Carter said he voted Conservative to keep Labour out as he felt previous MP Tracy Brabin, whose recent win as West Yorkshires first ever metropolitan mayor triggered last weeks byelection, did nothing for this area. I dont like George Galloway but if it wasnt for him splitting the Labour vote I think the Tories would have got it, he said.
Robert Fisher, 61, another Tory voter, said he felt too much of the discussion during the byelection campaign trail was on Kim Leadbeater being the sister of Jo Cox. She seems like a nice lady and what happened to the family is terrible, but she has no experience in politics, he said. I think Labour used her because they knew shed get a lot of the sympathy vote and knew they would have no chance otherwise. The Tories are the only party now that really cares about the working classes.
In one sense, a single win changes little. But it has shifted the political mood. The Tories are the ones examining what went wrong this weekend. For Labour the fightback has only just begun, but they have at least halted the Tory advance north. The mood of British politics would have been very different today if just over 160 votes had gone the other way.
Labour MPs know that only too well. They say the positive momentum has to be maintained through party conference in the autumn and beyond. Reeves said: This shows we are in the game and that when we fight and show people what we believe in, we can do it. We have to continue to do that.
This article was amended on 4 July 2021. The Tories would have won if just over 160 of the Labour votes had gone their way, not just over 300 as stated in an earlier version.
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