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19 October 2016updated 29 Jul 2021 4:30pm

On the road in Batley and Spen: voters face a by-election they never wanted

After Jo Cox MP was killed in her constituency, it faces a by-election – and far-right candidates are out in force. 

By Anoosh Chakelian

It’s a by-election nobody wanted to happen. On Thursday, the West Yorkshire constituency of Batley and Spen will elect a new MP.

Huddled in the foothills of the Pennines, this peaceful smattering of former textile towns and villages is known as “Sleepy Valley” because of its numerous bed manufacturers. But on 16 June 2016, it was shaken awake. Its Labour MP, Jo Cox, was shot and stabbed on her way to a constituency surgery. She is the first sitting British MP to be killed since 1990.

Thomas Mair, 53, has been charged with murder and is due to go on trial in November. When he appeared in court a few days after the attack, he gave his name as “death to traitors, freedom for Britain”. 

Out of respect for Cox, the Conservatives, Liberal Democrats, Greens and Ukip decided not to stand candidates. The Coronation Street actor, Tracy Brabin, is standing for Labour. A local from a working-class family, Brabin became close to Cox while canvassing for her last year. Once, when they were out campaigning together, Cox urged Brabin to think about a career in politics. Her friend had no idea that she’d have to consider this suggestion so soon.

Rather than letting the community heal, the absence of other mainstream political voices in the contest has left a vacuum filled by opportunists. A handful of far-right fringe candidates have jumped at the chance of publicity, and to mop up a few non-Labour votes. English Democrats, the BNP, Liberty GB and the National Front are all standing. There are a couple of local independents too – Garry Kitchin and Henry Mayhew – who feel an uncontested election would undermine democracy.

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Far-right and independent campaign literature in Batley and Spen.

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Batley and Spen has been a safe Labour seat since 1997, when it was won from the Tories. In 2015, Cox’s majority was 6,057, though Ukip came a strong third place behind the Tories, with 18 per cent of the vote. In other circumstances, the Conservatives would be working hard to take a seat like this.

When I visit the area, many locals seem flummoxed or frustrated by the lack of mainstream parties here. Though all praise Jo Cox’s work, they are a reminder that the majority of people here didn’t vote Labour last time (43 per cent did).

David Bentley, editor of the local paper The Press, says he has received more and more letters each week for the past three weeks bemoaning the lack of choice in the by-election. Linda Harrison, from Birstall, the village where Cox died, writes in this week’s issue of the paper: “It may have seemed the respectful thing to do at the time . . . but where’s the respect for the voters?”

She concludes: “Birstall may not be included in the official constituency name, but our votes do count and we don’t forgive or forget easily.”

In the newspaper’s picturesque office, a Victorian house of sandy-coloured rough brick, Bentley explains his readers’ concerns. “In the aftermath of Jo’s death, it’s a solid decision of the mainstream parties not to stand. But I think as it’s crept closer towards the by-election, some people have probably changed their minds a little bit,” he tells me. “They just wish there were more people to contest the seat who represent them, I suppose.”

Angela, the 61-year-old owner of the Corner Café in Batley, sits across me at a table in her café – complete with a red-and-white gingham table cloth and a strong Yorkshire cup of tea. “It’s just the Labour party, and some smaller groups,” she reflects. “Not even the Conservatives are standing – I thought you’d have had Conservatives, at least one of the main parties. But it’s not happening,” she shrugs.

Her café is next door to the Labour constituency office with its scarlet door and Jo Cox’s name still written across its front. Angela has offered the use of her café’s lounge for Brabin’s surgeries. “We’ll welcome a new person,” she says. “We’ve got to carry on.”

There are concerns in the Labour party too that the lack of other mainstream parties could affect turnout, and make it more difficult for Brabin’s platform to be publicised. Most broadcasters haven’t interviewed her, for example, because they would then have to give airtime to her far-right opponents.

“People might have to hold their nose and put the cross next to my name,” Brabin says. “But they’re doing it because it means so much more than just an ordinary by-election.”

She meets me in a cosy café in the town of Cleckheaton. This in the heart of the Spen Valley – a semi-rural, whiter part of the constituency, compared with Batley town’s high British Asian population.

Walking in from the rain after a morning spent door-knocking, the actor is a blur of activity among the quietly lunching clientele. She has a broad, warm smile, and a bright red rosette on her lapel reads: “Let’s stand together”. In a smart lilac blazer, she looks unruffled for someone on a quick break from bombing around in the drizzle.

Known best for her role as Tricia in Coronation Street, Brabin, 55, is a local through-and-through. She was born in nearby Mirfield, and grew up in a two-bed council flat in Howden Clough, an estate in Birstall. Her 85-year-old mother still lives there. When visiting home recently, Brabin bumped into a man she had known while growing up. “He said,” she thickens her Yorkshire accent, “I can’t bloody believe it – an MP from the Howden Clough estate, how did that happen?

She went to Heckmondwike Grammar – the same school Jo Cox attended – and was the first in her family to go to university, where she studied drama.

Before getting a job selling white goods, her mother ran a café in Birstall for five years, Betty’s caf, which Brabin describes as “the heart of the community”. She used to go after school and eat ice cream from the freezer, while her grandmother, called “Little Gran” (she was four foot seven) did the washing up, nine to five, with no pay.

“That’s the women I’m from,” beams Brabin. “Yorkshire women. They have a rod of steel. When life gets tough, they lean on each other and they support each other. We ate out of that cafe, fed the family as well – it was a big success.”

That café, now called The Cobbles, is just around the corner from the place where Cox was killed on Market Street. It perches on the cobbled market place, which slopes down to Birstall Library, where Cox was heading when she was attacked. Flowerbeds of primroses and roses are neatly maintained outside the library. Birstall is known for its floral decorations – it often enters the Yorkshire in Bloom competition.

Yet the last time this spot was covered in flowers was to mark a tragedy. “Let’s stand together on Thursday 20th October” say three identical placards tied to a lamppost. Brabin’s smile shines out of each of them.

Birstall Library was where she used to study as a child. “It was my solace,” says Brabin. “A place where I’d go to study because we lived in a really tiny flat.”

She and Cox campaigned together to keep the library open. Brabin’s mother was in the community centre below the library at a craft club on the day of Cox’s death. “My mum was in a siege,” recalls Brabin. “The police [had] locked all the old ladies in the craft club . . . So it’s all been intertwined.”

***

Azzurro is a café set back from Market Street, next to the library. Its owner Hichem Ben Abdallah, who moved here from Tunisia in 1983, was serving customers on the day of Cox’s death. He is outraged by the other candidates campaigning. “They’ve got a cheek, to be quite honest,” he says. “The seat was taken by force from Labour – blood had to be shed for this by-election to happen.”

Leaning over his counter of homemade cakes, he tells me: “The BNP show they don’t have morals. What kind of party has so little morals that when somebody’s killed they capitalise on that? They’re not going to win. They’re making a fool of themselves. There aren’t tensions here; it’s bonded together. There should not have been an election. The seat is won.”

Brabin is saddened by the far-right brigade hijacking her by-election, but says they have no significance beyond publicity-hunting. “I don’t think they have an offer. I think what they’re trying to do is fuel anxieties about immigration, and people who feel cut off from society, or left out by globalisation,” she says. “But I don’t hear it on the doorstep.”

There are concerns about immigration round here. Like most of Yorkshire and Humberside, a majority of voters here opted for Brexit. In the Kirklees Council district, which covers Batley and Spen, 55 per cent voted Leave. And Ukip shot to second, out of nowhere, in the general election last year.

Batley town centre has a high concentration of British Asians and Asians – of Indian, Pakistani and Kashmiri origin. The villages surrounding it are whiter. There are eastern Europeans too, but a smaller proportion than in surrounding areas.

“It’s sort of middle of the range, Batley, in terms of how demographically Ukippy it is,” says Rob Ford, a political science professor at the University of Manchester and author of Revolt on the Right, who has been studying the most Ukip-vulnerable Labour seats. “These are often very classic swing seats, more heterogeneous than the typical seat. You’ve got parts of it that are either more ethnic minority, or more middle-class and well-off. But then you’ve got other parts that are quite poor and deprived.”

He says this could lead to “decent pockets” turning to the populist right, and warns that these might turn to far-right parties in Ukip’s absence. “There could be a 10, 15 per cent, or even more, segment of the electorate there that’s hacked off, quite English nationalist, strongly anti-immigration, strongly Brexity,” he notes. “They may well go to the English Democrats.”

He adds: “I don’t currently have a strong explanation for that kind of inward-looking, immigration-sceptic, English kind of identity – that kind of aggressive George Cross Englishness that we’re now seeing more of in our politics. There seems to be more of it in the kind of east, north-east half of the country than there is elsewhere.”

Eric Kaufmann, professor of politics at Birkbeck, is also hesitant about reading too much into the constituency’s mix. “Where you get the most opposition to immigration is in places that have had a rapid ethnic shift,” he says. “I’m not sure from Batley and Spen that that’s the case. Because of age structure and internal demographics, you’ve probably got a growing Asian population there.

“[But] it looks fairly middling on some indicators, like the share of the white British population that identifies itself as being ‘English’ rather ‘British’ – it’s 77 per cent. The average is 67 per cent.”

The far-right has had a presence here in the past. Around ten years ago, there were a couple of BNP councillors elected to wards in Batley and Spen. And in the 2010 general election, the party received 7.1 per cent of the vote. It didn’t run last year.

The neighbouring constituency Dewsbury is known for racial tensions, and has seen Britain First and EDL marches over the years. Like Batley, it has a mining history, and is a former mill town with a big Pakistani Muslim population, and surrounding whiter areas. It has also had BNP councillors.

These parts are known as a “heavy woollen district”, because of a tradition in wool-dying and manufacturing cloth. That industrial base has vastly disappeared now, the mighty old textile mills peppering Batley repurposed for everything from auction houses to garden centres.

“Traditional white working-class manufacturing jobs have disappeared almost entirely,” says David Bentley of The Press. “There are more low-skilled jobs being created.”

It was once known for big brands like Johnston’s Paints and Fox’s Biscuits. The latter – an imposing concrete edifice – is a big employer and home of household favourites such as Party Rings and Rockys. Brabin worked there packing biscuits one summer on the production line when she was 18.

“It’s a great community, it’s very female – top gossip,” she grins. “When I worked at Fox’s Biscuits, it did feel there was buoyancy commercially, and our big industry was manufacturing. And of course that industry is shrinking.”

> Now read Anoosh and Stephen’s obituary of Jo Cox