Batley and Spen is witnessing an ugly final few days of campaigning ahead of Thursday’s by-election, in which Labour is facing a difficult challenge from the Conservatives and former MP George Galloway.
The Labour party has been accused of “dog-whistle racism” by one of its own MPs, Navendu Mishra, after a party leaflet was distributed to Muslim voters in the constituency depicting Boris Johnson with India’s nationalist prime minister, Narendra Modi, in 2019, with the words: “Don’t risk a Tory MP who is not on your side.” Labour has confirmed that this is an official party leaflet. Separately, Labour has alerted the police to the distribution of fake party leaflets depicting Keir Starmer taking the knee, accompanied by the message: “the biggest threat to our precious multicultural society is whiteness”.
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These accusations of racism by Labour and underhand tactics by its opponents all come after the already tense and bitter campaign intensified over the weekend, as footage emerged of the Labour candidate, Kim Leadbeater, being verbally harassed by an anti-LGBTQ activist and his supporters. Labour activists were also pelted with eggs, and one kicked in the head, on Sunday, according to the region’s mayor Tracy Brabin, who reported the incident to the police. Anoosh has a peerless long reported piece on the state of the contest.
The situation in Batley and Spen is “dire” for Labour, with the most honest party figures now openly saying that they expect to lose. There has been a rallying of support for Leadbeater in the face of the rancour of recent days, but Labour MPs are still unafraid to be frank about their anger with how the campaign has been handled.
They are, firstly, annoyed that this by-election is taking place at all, triggered as it was by Brabin stepping down as the constituency’s MP to stand for West Yorkshire mayor. MPs whisper that she would not have done this had she been able to retain her former role of shadow culture secretary under Starmer. Whether the Labour leader had found a way to make her stay happily in parliament or simply prevented her standing for the mayoralty, MPs believe a tricky and prominent by-election setting the tone for the summer was an entirely avoidable error.
But, having given one Hindu Labour MP sufficient cause to place an accusation of “dog-whistle racism” on the record against his party, the Labour leader should also be aware of the palpable upset and anger among some of his party’s Muslim MPs. They privately share the view expressed by voters in Batley and Spen that the Labour party has taken Muslim voters for granted for a long time. “You see a brown face open the door and you assume they’re voting Labour. That’s been Labour’s problem for years,” is how one Muslim Labour MP puts it, starkly.
These MPs have myriad concerns – from the initial selection of Leadbeater instead of local longstanding Labour Muslim activists who would have liked to stand, to the party’s messaging on Palestine and Kashmir, to a lack of prominent Muslim spokespeople in the run-up to the by-election, just as Johnson promotes Sajid Javid. “Keir is basically received really negatively in Muslim communities,” says one frontbencher.
There is already a conversation underway among MPs about whether Labour has been too narrowly focused on “Red Wall” voters at the expense of the rest of its electoral coalition. Whatever happens on Thursday, “there’ll be some harsh words from the Muslim MPs to Keir,” says one. “There already have been, but maybe this time he’ll listen.”