Thank God that’s over. The Batley and Spen by-election has been a grim spectacle and no-one should be celebrating the result.
For Labour, holding a seat in a by-election by 323 votes is hardly a great victory. In fact, at 35%, the party secured its lowest share of the vote since 1983. Some might argue that triggering the contest, by encouraging the former MP Tracy Brabin to run for the West Yorkshire mayoralty, was careless. Had the Tories repeated their 2019 performance the constituency would have fallen into their hands, but with a candidate from outside the area and a disorganised ground campaign they failed to capitalise.
However the real loser here was undoubtedly British politics, which has again been dragged into the gutter by George Galloway.
Things were bad enough in Batley, a seat whose former MP, Jo Cox, was murdered and where a local teacher is still in hiding after showing students a cartoon of the Prophet Muhammad. Galloway saw all this as an opportunity.
This is a man for whom no depth is too low and no argument too petty – he even threatened to sue the local council in a row about the size of the font on his posters. He stoked tensions between ethnic minorities and his campaign attracted homophobes, anti-Semites and conspiracy theorists. To give you an idea, canvassers report repeatedly hearing that Keir Starmer is a ‘zionist’ and one Galloway supporter told the Jewish Chronicle that the Labour candidate, Kim Leadbeater, was “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.”
At the same time Galloway positioned himself as a proxy in a factional fight for control of the Labour Party, telling Owen Jones, in a crawling interview, that “if I win it sends a dramatic message to the whole Labour movement that Starmer must go”. Doubtless some on the hard left would have welcomed a Tory MP if it meant installing a Corbynite as Labour leader – such is the allure of permanent opposition.
But we expect this rubbish from paleo-socialists. Perhaps more worrying is the way Labour allowed fraught foreign policy issues to be drawn into the campaign, especially with dog whistle leaflets featuring Indian prime minister Narendra Modi. Exploiting conflicts in Kashmir and Palestine that have minimal relevance to the daily lives of people in Batley and Spen, and over which an individual MP has vanishingly little influence, is shoddy stuff.
To her credit, Leadbeater recognises that what most voters in by-elections really care about is local issues like crime, housing, poverty and potholes. That’s not surprising since she was the only leading candidate who lives in the constituency. Given the despicable campaign against her, an ugly Conservative victory over Jo Cox’s bereaved sister would have left a bitter taste – and I say that as a card-carrying Tory.
So relief, rather than jubilation, is the appropriate response from everyone – except Angela Rayner, whose rumoured leadership challenge will have to wait. That doesn’t mean Keir Starmer can rest easy. It’s fine to win a local fight, however bloody, but in a general election you need a bigger message. Currently 60% of people, and two in five Labour voters, say it’s unclear what he stands for. He needs to define that for himself, but by responding to agitators like Galloway by lobbing apparently random questions about Israel into PMQs, he risks allowing others to do it for him.
As for Leadbeater, she now has the unenviable of task of representing everyone in her fractured community. She doesn’t need me to tell her that she should stick to her guns, be the best possible MP for her area, and focus on potholes – not Palestine.
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