Political tribes all have their distinguishing stripes and Labour’s are now on display in Batley and Spen. Parties have preoccupations that, to strangers, mark them out as peculiar. The Conservative Party’s historic obsession with the European Union was odd not because of the hostile position taken – that is well within the range of plausible thoughts – but because of the gravity with which it was held. This vast loss of proportion forced the rest of us to spend years talking about something most people barely cared about. Labour’s equivalent obsession is foreign policy and, more specifically, Israel and Palestine.
The Labour candidate in Batley and Spen is Kim Leadbeater, the sister of Jo Cox, who was the constituency’s MP when she was murdered by a right-wing fanatic in June 2016. Leadbeater is a good candidate who would grace the seat – however, she recently made what can only be described as a type of hostage video, which reveals the state the Labour Party has got itself into.
In a video released on Twitter, Leadbeater uncontroversially says that Batley and Spen needs an MP who “understands the whole constituency”. Her script is like a map of the local territory: Birstall, Birkenshaw, Heckmondwike, Hightown and Hartshead are all name-checked. But then, out of left field, so is Palestine. Leadbeater utters a phrase that is a perfect example of Labour’s problem with perspective: “whether that’s international concerns around Palestine and other issues, or whether it’s looking at how we can have vibrant town centres and improve Batley and Heckmondwike”.
How strange that a party should bracket these two things, that it should be necessary for a decent candidate to say something so unhinged. And it really is unhinged for Palestine – and Keir Starmer’s stance on Kashmir, for that matter – to prominently feature in a by-election campaign in West Yorkshire.
The problem here is not the position people take (again, there is a range of plausible attitudes), but the unvarying intensity with which the view is held, and the tragicomic supposition that a historic conflict will be made better or worse by the election of an MP for Batley and Spen with forceful views. It reminds me of the time when, as a young officer of Islington North Labour Party, I was instructed to write a stiff letter to the United Nations about East Timor. Our MP, Jeremy Corbyn, couldn’t see why this was funny. He couldn’t grasp how it would be best to prevent a colossal loss of perspective becoming a defining feature of a tribe.
The loss of the Muslim vote is the latest problem for Labour in Batley and Spen. The party almost lost the seat in 2019 when the Tories won 36 per cent of the vote, which was not so far behind Labour with 42.7 per cent. The upcoming by-election could be the third in a series – after Hartlepool, and Chesham and Amersham – that reveals the structural realignment of British politics. An element of pork barrel politics is at work too. Next door, Dewsbury received £24.8m from the government’s town fund, and Batley and Spen would like some of that.
But the holy wine of Brexit is still in the blood of politics. A recent Survation poll has the Tories leading in Batley and Spen with 47 per cent of the vote. The figure is estimated from the 2019 vote for the Conservatives, plus most of the 12 per cent that voted then for a right-wing independent standing under the banner of the Heavy Woollen District Independents, and the 3 per cent who voted for the Brexit Party.
So Labour is already struggling against the tribal issue of its opponents without adding to its troubles with a tribal issue of its own. Cue the lord of mischief George Galloway, who, fresh from failing to win a seat in the Scottish parliament, has turned up in Batley and Spen in the hope of repeating his triumph in Bradford in 2012. In all likelihood, though, Galloway will do enough damage to the Labour vote to help the Tory candidate over the line. From a campaign headquarters decked out with Palestinian flags, Galloway is leaving the Muslims of West Yorkshire in no doubt where his loyalties lie. Galloway is, as ever, indefatigable in his fluent opining on conflicts he has no capacity to make better.
But his campaign is, in truth, more intriguing than that, and reveals the structural dilemma the Labour Party faces nationally. Galloway is running for the Workers Party of Britain as a pro-Brexit, anti-woke social conservative. He has happily drawn attention to a photograph – which Labour thought to be damning – of himself campaigning for Brexit with Nigel Farage. He has described himself, choosing his words carefully as always, as “a working-class straight white male with six children”. The culture war connotations could not have been clearer if Oliver Dowden were writing Galloway’s tweets. Lest anyone should have missed the point, Galloway then adds that he has “no time for wokery”.
The workers are swinging to the Conservatives over the Tory tribe’s obsession with Brexit. The left and some Muslim voters are leaving Labour due to disagreements over Israel and Palestine. It is hard to see a happy ending for Leadbeater, caught, as she is, in the middle of some tectonic shifts. The politics of the past few weeks have shown how hard it is to play both sides in the culture war. Though the Tories’ obsession has brought them a viable electoral coalition, there is no route to national popularity that can be charted by Labour’s left.
To this day, I still await a reply from the UN to my letter. I am not sure the combatants in East Timor ever knew of the earnest disapproval they inspired among the concerned of the Islington North Labour Party. It will be the same for all those dreamers who are making a two-state solution out of Batley and Spen.
This article appears in the 23 Jun 2021 issue of the New Statesman, How Brexit changed us