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30 June 2021

Labour’s struggles in Batley and Spen show Keir Starmer must change to survive

The Labour leader needs to end his war with the left and produce bold and radical policies by the autumn.

By Paul Mason

“Don’t read too much into Batley.” Win or lose, that’s the mantra we will likely hear from Labour on Friday morning (2 July). The rationale is that it’s an unusual place with a Muslim community being exploited by George Galloway and five far-right candidates.

In fact, we should read everything into Batley. Everything about the future dynamics of social democracy in England, that is.

Let’s start with the economy. As you leave the railway station, down the majestic curve of cobblestones that once sent woollen cloth to the world, the signature image is of buddleia growing through ruined sandstone warehouses. The archaeology tells the story: this was once a thriving place that generated wealth and pride; now it does not.

Yes, there’s a thriving bed-making industry. But one in three households in Kirklees (the district that includes Batley and the Spen Valley) lives in poverty. Everything in Batley town beyond the railway bank, and much of nearby Heckmondwike, is in the official red zone for multiple deprivation: in the bottom 20 per cent of British postcodes. The detailed statistics give you a picture of what that means. The entire town of Batley is in the bottom 10 per cent for incomes, crime, adult skills and elderly living standards.

If Labour cannot harness the justified discontent of the communities who have to live with this, it does not deserve to exist. But the evidence of the doorstep suggests it is struggling to do so. Even if, by some miracle, a get-out-the-vote operation turns the by-election into a tight Labour-Tory race, with Galloway marginalised, Labour is struggling where it should be winning.

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Worse, there is no part of the collective Labour brain that can admit what it’s struggling against: the fragmentation of a century-old electoral alliance along new fault lines generated by values, culture and identity.

Some of Labour’s problems were self-created. Keir Starmer’s office encouraged the previous Batley MP Tracy Brabin to stand for the West Yorkshire mayoralty, which triggered an unnecessary by-election and accusations of careerism. Starmer’s refusal to share an Iftar meal with a Muslim organisation because its CEO supported boycotts of Israeli goods and had praised the controversial human rights group CAGE has played horrendously across the wider Muslim community, leading to Starmer’s low public profile in the Batley campaign.

Added to that is the national dysfunction of the party. Starmer’s office, say campaigners and officials, has robbed organisational power from Labour HQ and its regional machines – yet it contains no professional campaign expertise, its comms are dire and it hasn’t generated a single eye-catching policy, meme or slogan.

The anger of Batley’s Muslim population, both over the Gaza war and Starmer’s tepid opposition to it, is real. So is the mistrust of many of LGBT education in schools. But this sentiment could have remained electorally irrelevant, channelled through conference motions and open letters, had Galloway not turned up.

Galloway’s campaign is a variation on three themes: homophobia, Palestine and the conspiracy theories that form the subtext of all populist politics. What matters is not what he says, in his self-regarding rants, but the narrative it has created. 

Vox pops captured by the Jewish Chronicle illustrate the conversations Labour campaigners are hearing. One Batley voter told the JC that Labour candidate Kim Leadbeater is “a lesbian and openly… She supports male-to-male relations in schools. The main thing is she spoke against Palestine, but her sister spoke for Palestine, and they got her assassinated straight away.” 

Galloway, whose former key local ally Shammy Cheema was recently outed as a Holocaust denier and axed from Galloway’s campaign, has managed to embed in the minds of some Muslim voters that: a) Labour stands for what they repeatedly call “the gay system” in education; b) that Leadbeater spoke “against Palestine” (she in fact called for a two-state solution and a ceasefire), and c) that Jo Cox was covertly murdered by the British state because she supported Palestine.

As Labour activists battle this – usually with great tolerance and sensitivity – all the Tories have to do is sit back and watch. They can bank the votes of the former Heavy Woollen District Independents – a group of Leavers that split from Ukip in 2017 when it took its proto-fascist turn (and which won 12.2 per cent of the vote in Batley at the 2019 general election). They can count on Galloway to erode some of Labour’s Muslim vote. They can even count on the far right to do the dirty work – in this case issuing a fake Labour leaflet showing Starmer taking the knee and condemning white privilege. As a result, if Labour is beaten in Batley and Spen, it will be by a Tory candidate who has done and said remarkably little. 

Set against these challenges, some of them self-created, Labour has in general done the right thing on the ground in Batley. Despite the urging of the right-wing media, it has dealt with the anti-Semitism and homophobia deployed against it carefully, refusing to stigmatise the wider community, or to inflame tensions. On the streets, it has refused to back down in the face of sexist intimidation and homophobic abuse, mobilising young, motivated activists and MPs from the north of England and beyond.

For the first time in years, Labour has been forced to wage a political fightback in one of its core communities – and I could see it starting to work in Batley. Activists arriving to get out the vote tomorrow (1 July) can do so with a justified “optimism of the will”. Whatever you read in the papers, the majority of doorstep conversations continue to revolve around crime, potholes, housing, the prospects of the young and the poverty of the old.

Sometimes, when faced with the sudden eruption of values into politics, and right-wing populists prepared to exploit them (because that’s what Galloway is), all you can do is the right thing. The task for Labour now is to do the right thing better, and in a way that gives it a chance of winning in future.

By the weekend – win or lose – there will be calls for a change of leadership. To achieve what? A new face fronting the same drift and policy vacuum, at the cost of six months of factionalism and disruption? What is needed is more fundamental than that. 

I supported Starmer for the leadership because, in early 2020, he embodied the only strategy that can win: uniting Labour around a radical offer on the economy and climate change, alongside a traditional social-democratic offer on crime, defence, foreign policy and redistribution. I said then and repeat now: if that strategy fails, the only other option, to avoid one-party Conservative rule, is an electoral pact with the Lib Democrats and the Greens, and a governing pact with the SNP, as advocated by the Norwich backbencher Clive Lewis. 

Has Starmer executed his chosen strategy? No. He allowed his allies on the Labour right to force the left off the front bench and removed the party whip from Jeremy Corbyn. Imagine Corbyn going toe-to-toe with Galloway on the streets of Batley and you will understand the price we are paying.

Nor has he found the language to connect with ordinary Brits. Zipping between Bradford, Leeds and Batley over the weekend alongside hundreds of working-class people staging a thinly clad offensive on pubs, clubs and curry houses, I was reminded of how little anything at Westminster reflects their lives. Their cheerful humour, their bucolic self-deprecation in the face of precarity – none of it is reflected in the Wesleyan language of Labour’s front bench.

Above all, there is still no central spine of policy commitments. Everything is under review, with no clear reporting lines, deadlines or outcomes. Starmer’s critics inside the shadow cabinet want party HQ put back in control of campaigning. They want all messaging to be centralised, positive and done in the vernacular. They want Starmer to speak to the gut instincts of voters and ditch lawyer-speak. They ask, repeatedly, “How do we get the left back on board?” – for no other reason than that, even now, the left represents the majority of the membership.

The answer to that is clear. Restore the whip to Corbyn. Reappoint members of the Socialist Campaign Group to the shadow cabinet. End the HQ takeover of Constituency Labour Parties, understood by members as the prelude to a formal attack on party democracy.

Above all, the party needs to find a way of putting a few key memes, slogans and soundbites into voters’ heads. It needs the policy review to produce five big and radical commitments by early September, for the party conference to showcase them, for the membership to take ownership of them and for the shadow Treasury team to commit to funding them.

That’s no guarantee of success. It’s just the only way you stop making devoted activists believe they will lose forever.