It’s just over a week until the Batley and Spen by-election, and George Galloway is pretending to erect a velvet bed.
“This takes me back,” he grins at the camera, shooting staples into the wooden frame. He has just made a speech to 40-odd bed makers at the Somnior Beds factory in Batley, reminiscing about his time as a young lad working at the Michelin tyre plant in Dundee.
Bed factories are a mainstay of the campaign trail in Batley and Spen – there are around 100 around here, hence the nickname “Sleepy Valley”. Taf Hussein, 40, who runs another bed-making business in the area and is campaigning for Galloway, tells me this is the first election where he’s turned local politicians seeking photo ops away.
Our visit isn’t all about the dignity of manual labour, however. Dressed in his uniform of fedora, Ray-Ban specs, checked jacket and suede boots, Galloway laments the plight of the Palestinians to his audience, and recalls how he warned Tony Blair in a Commons corridor against invading Iraq two weeks before the war. An aide translates his speech afterwards, in a mix of Punjabi and Urdu.
Most of the workers here are British Asians, and around 10 per cent of the constituency’s population are of Pakistani heritage, according to Kirklees Council. This makes it one of the top 15 seats in the country where Muslim voters have a high impact, according to calculations made by the Muslim Council of Britain.
Batley and Spen is a marginal Labour constituency in West Yorkshire, won from the Conservatives in 1997. Labour’s majority is 3,525, with the Tories a close second. Tracy Brabin, MP here since 2016, resigned as an MP in May when she was elected metro mayor for West Yorkshire.
In 2019, a vocal local Brexiteer called Paul Halloran standing for the Heavy Woollen District Independents came third with 12 per cent of the vote. He isn’t standing this time, and it’s thought that a substantial number of protest votes are up for grabs.
Enter Galloway. The controversial figure, elected to the Commons six times in total, is showing he still has a way with voters.
The veteran left-winger, having taken a Brexity turn five years ago, was never one for political correctness and has kept up with the populist times.
While targeting Muslim voters, just as he did when he defeated Labour in Bethnal Green & Bow in 2005 and in Bradford West in 2012, he is also using anti-“woke” messaging in an attempt to reach the whiter working-class parts of the constituency. Two days after we meet, he plans to appear at a rally with Laurence Fox – the actor who has made a name provoking the progressive left.
Even if it is opportunistic, it’s a surprisingly coherent strategy. Social conservatism can appeal to both demographics. “It’s not a left-right question,” Galloway tells me. “We are concerned about class issues, economic issues, not cultural ones.”
Labour’s “infatuation with identity politics, people’s colour, religion, their sexual orientation and all that” is “destroying their class coalition” of Asian and white workers, he argues.
“The handing out of ‘ists’ and ‘obes’ to anyone who makes what you consider to be the slightest mistake on personal pronouns and all of this nonsense… It’s something that greatly irritates and even angers many of their traditional voters.”
Smears against the Labour Party that play on prejudice have crept into Batley’s by-election chatter. WhatsApp messages stoking homophobia against Labour’s candidate, Kim Leadbeater, and anti-Semitism against Keir Starmer’s wife, Victoria, who is from a Jewish family, are reportedly buzzing around local networks.
“We’ve seen this stuff and we don’t know where it comes from. There is some nasty stuff going around,” says a Labour campaign insider. “I hope Galloway would distance himself from all of that.”
A campaign source on Galloway’s team says they had not seen such messages – and had not known about Leadbeater’s sexuality. “Our campaign has been more focused on Starmer.”
Salim Patel, 60, a Batley born-and-raised electrician taking his morning walk around the Memorial Park, told me: “There is a lot of stuff said on social media about issues with the Labour Party, on some WhatsApp groups but also on main social media – it’s not like it’s all hidden. From social media, that’s how you get to know that a lot of people are not going to vote for Labour.” He tries to ignore it and, as always, will vote Labour.
Galloway and his Workers Party of Britain activists are buoyant. They are even making inroads in more affluent Tory areas, they claim.
On a smart road of semi-detached houses in the village of Soothill, their patter switches to local crime rates, and they receive a polite hearing: Batley police station was closed in 2018, and there have been local issues with dangerous driving and drug-dealing.
The messaging can occasionally backfire, however. One young man working from home looks baffled upon opening his door to a pitch from bricklayer and Leeds United fanatic Shaun Frere, who’s campaigning for Galloway: “A vote for the Workers Party is a vote for Palestine; a vote for Labour is a vote for Israel.” The man gingerly takes the leaflet, and says he’ll add it “to the pile”.
“I’m the alternative,” Galloway tells the crowd of workers in high-vis vests, squinting at him in the sun outside the bed factory. “I’m what Labour used to be before Tony Blair hijacked it. I’m a better version of Labour.”
Asking openly for protest votes, this insurgent campaign’s aim is either to win or condemn Labour to a thumping defeat. The great prize for Galloway, however, would be Keir Starmer’s resignation. “Inshallah!” laugh his campaign team in the car.
At Labour HQ, down the road from the imposing concrete edifice of Fox’s Biscuits – a big local employer and home to Party Rings and Rocky Bars – it’s all potholes, anti-social behaviour and youth unemployment.
The campaign has been trying to focus on local issues, helmed by its relentlessly positive candidate Kim Leadbeater. She is the only person standing who lives and works in the constituency, and is the sister of its late MP Jo Cox, killed by a white supremacist on her way to meet constituents in the market town of Birstall in 2016.
While everyone I meet on the campaign trail expresses great respect for Cox, and describes Leadbeater’s local credentials warmly, there is some ambivalence over her candidacy. Even back when I visited for the by-election in 2016 (which none of Labour’s main opponents contested out of respect for Cox), I picked up a desire among residents to move forward.
“Candidate effects can be overstated, but there is research that shows how well-associated a candidate is with a local area does matter to some voters,” says Rob Ford, professor of political science at the University of Manchester and author of Revolt on the Right and Brexitland.
“Jo Cox was very popular, and her violent death was deeply felt in the area… But the downside potentially is that her sister’s a political novice, and that could count against her.”
Another consequence of Leadbeater’s candidacy is that loyal local Labour figures, some of whom are in the Muslim community, had no chance to secure the nomination. Resentment at being overlooked makes them reluctant to campaign, according to one Labour MP who knows the constituency well. I am unable to speak to Leadbeater; her team is trying to stick to local media.
Leadbeater has had to clarify Labour’s position on Palestine, Kashmir, and Islamophobia. During a recent Prime Minister’s Questions, Keir Starmer mentioned the “appalling violence” against children in Gaza, and called for a “meaningful peace process” in the Middle East.
“We are working very hard on the Muslim community,” says a Labour campaign source. “We are doing everything we can to reassure Muslim voters that the Labour Party’s still their home. If they don’t vote for Kim, it’ll be a Tory MP – lobby fodder for a Prime Minister who insults Muslim women and cosies up to Narendra Modi.” (Boris Johnson has described women wearing burqas as “bank robbers” and “letter boxes”, and faced accusations of acting slowly against the Delta variant of Covid-19 in his pursuit of a trade deal with India.)
Yet it could be too little, too late. Some feel Labour was too quiet on the recent Israel-Gaza conflict, and were disappointed by the party’s shift in emphasis from supporting self-determination in Kashmir to describing it as “a bilateral issue for India and Pakistan to resolve” under Starmer’s leadership.
“Labour has taken our votes for granted,” says a leader of a local mosque who would rather not be named.
While Labour continues to be by far the most popular party among British Muslim voters, there has been a drop in support since the 2019 general election, according to a recent poll by Survation. The percentage who identify with Labour has declined, from 83 per cent in 2019 compared to 72 per cent of those polled in 2021.
“They’re all coming to see us here now, why didn’t they come before? They are chasing the gold,” says Yasser Hussain, 44, a taxi driver standing in the sun on a break. “It’s like they’re invading. Nobody wanted to know us before, or ask us about the issues here; we have no policing, too many burglaries, and have you seen the roads?
“The standard thing in Britain is that Muslim votes go to Labour but George Galloway has a powerful personality, and we want a change.”
A June poll of the electorate here, by Survation, gives the Conservatives a six-percentage-point lead over Labour, putting them on course to win the seat, with Galloway third on a 6 per cent vote share. A Conservative win would set a postwar record for government by-election gains. However, the polling is unlikely to represent the intentions of voters who are the hardest to survey: first-generation immigrants with limited English language skills.
“There is a tendency for sub-samples of ethnic minorities to over-represent younger, more educated, more politically-interested, strong-English-language-skills, native-born ethnic minorities,” says Ford. “All of those things are associated with greater political volatility.”
Huddled in the foothills of the Pennines, the sloping expanses of Batley and Spen are made up of a smattering of former textile towns and villages. These parts are known as the “heavy woollen district”, because of a tradition in wool-dying and manufacturing cloth. That industrial base has vanished now, the mighty old mills repurposed for everything from auction houses to shopping complexes.
Batley town centre has a high concentration of British Asians and Asians. The villages surrounding it are whiter. There are eastern Europeans too, but a smaller proportion than in surrounding areas.
Cleckheaton, a semi-rural town in the heart of the Spen Valley, hosts the Conservative campaign base. Ryan Stephenson, a Leeds councillor and academy trust director, is the party’s candidate. A Labour campaign source believes he is “hoping to play it safe, not do or say anything of interest and win by default”. He has been nicknamed “the Invisible Man” and “Where’s Wally?” by the Galloway campaign.
When I attempt to ask Stephenson some questions, he looks visibly frightened, climbs into a car and drives off.
“He’s absolutely not shying away,” insists Amanda Milling, co-chairman of the Conservative Party, who is out canvassing in the constituency. “A campaign is not just about media, it’s about talking to residents, talking to businesses, getting on the doorstep, knocking on doors, having those conversations. It’s a very local campaign.”
A key strategy for the Tories is to talk up Batley and Spen’s chances of winning government funding to revitalise the area. During a recent visit Boris Johnson said this investment could come through “the towns fund, the levelling-up fund or the many other funds that we have available”.
It’s a beguiling message for locals – neighbouring Huddersfield and Dewsbury were awarded £250m and £200m respectively for their centres from the towns fund.
While Milling describes the by-election as a “tough challenge” for the Tories and points out that the party didn’t win in 2019, local activists appear more confident.
“If I were to predict which party was going to win, I reckon it would be the Conservatives,” says one, who has been out door-knocking with Stephenson. “We’re targeting the Conservative residents, making sure they vote, and I do think there is more support for Conservatives than Labour, and Labour votes are more likely to go to Galloway.”
Labour campaigners here do not sound confident; one tells me “Galloway’s done really well, he’s sewn up certain areas”.
As polling day approaches, both the Labour and Conservative camps appear to be keeping their heads down and focusing on getting out the vote. This almost bunker-like mentality means some subjects are left untouched.
The last time the media descended on Batley was during protests outside Batley Grammar School in March, when an RE teacher was suspended for showing a cartoon of the Prophet Muhammad to a class. After an investigation concluded he could return to teach at the school, he has declined and stayed in hiding, reportedly for fear of his safety. (Last October, a history teacher was decapitated by an Islamist extremist outside his school in a Paris suburb after showing a caricature of the Prophet Muhammad to his pupils.)
Leadbeater has commented on the story, calling it “completely unacceptable” that the teacher was “forced into hiding and his family put at risk” while welcoming the end of his suspension, but some feel it has been ignored by the campaigns of the main parties. Paul Halloran and Laurence Fox organised a rally over “free speech” in the constituency. The New Statesman has contacted Halloran for an interview.
“If I’d been the MP, I would’ve shown leadership in the response to it. The local political class ran away, and the media stoked it into something that it wasn’t,” says Galloway. “But no one, not one person, has raised this issue.”
Indeed, the school incident does not feel like a priority among voters, though one white British solicitor, aged 40, who was born here and lives in a more affluent part of town, says it is a “difficult subject” for people to raise for fear of sounding “racist”. (She does not wish to be named.)
“There is a difficult dynamic here, no one can deny that,” she says. “That teacher was woefully neglected and betrayed, it’s a travesty – why hasn’t the head teacher stood down? Race issues have to be handled very delicately, you have to be careful, and people in leadership are afraid to address them.”
Disappointed in the council and by Tracy Brabin standing down, she wants “Labour out” and is voting Conservative, though she “doesn’t like the fact he [Ryan Stephenson] is not local”.
“We need someone who can appeal to all people to bring the community together,” she says. “Outsiders are very partisan and they’re reaping division.”
The far right has tried to make inroads here in the past. Over a decade 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.
The neighbouring constituency Dewsbury has experienced racial tensions, with 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.
A handful of far-right candidates are standing this time round, as they did during the 2016 by-election in an attempt to fill a vacuum left by the main parties.
The people of Batley and Spen have “far more in common than that which divides us”. This was Jo Cox’s description of her constituency when she made her maiden speech to the House of Commons in 2015.
“More in common” became a mantra in her memory. What unites the diverse bundle of voters here today is a desire for change. What exactly that means will be clearer long after the circus has left town.
[See also: Who will win the Batley and Spen by-election?]