Arriving in Batley, the first sign of the by-election being held on July 1st is a poster of George Galloway in a boxing pose: “Starmer Out”. Bed manufacturers and car dealerships sit between rows of beautiful stone houses. Most strikingly on this particular day, police officers are everywhere – on the ground, in vehicles and on horseback – because fascist Stephen Yaxley-Lennon is expected to join a rally in support of one of the candidates. He is nowhere to be seen, though, so there is an anti-racist counter-demonstration with little far-right presence to counter.
Around 100 people surround a small samba band that plays between speeches by activists, including a niqabi teacher who asks “do we not bleed the same?” and an NEU member who declares that Tommy Robinson was “too scared to turn up today”. It all takes place in front of Jo Cox House, a reminder of what can happen when the white supremacists do make an appearance.
At the Labour campaign centre nearby, shadow cabinet member Emily Thornberry and frontbenchers James Murray and Tan Dhesi are preparing to put in a shift on the doorstep for the candidate, Jo Cox’s sister Kim Leadbeater. Her rival Galloway is aiming to force another Labour defeat and put pressure on Starmer to quit as opposition leader.
Dhesi tells me he has visited Batley and Spen several successive weekends, using his Punjabi and Urdu to engage with locals who are attracted to Galloway’s message. The Labour MP waits for these voters to express their anger for five minutes before giving his own view, explaining that he has worked with Keir Starmer, that he believes the Labour leader is neither an Islamophobe nor anti-Kashmir. Even at this late stage of the campaign, activists are persuading locals, rather than just getting a ‘yes’ or ‘no’.
Back in the market square, Harriet explains why she plans to back Labour: “I won’t be voting for any racism or anything like that. There’s enough crap going on in’t country without adding fuel to that fire.” A white woman from Carlinghow who does not want to be named says she is usually Labour but will vote for Galloway. The Workers Party of Britain leader is not only targeting South Asian communities. One of his activists came to her door and “that secured my vote”, she says.
What convinced her? “They’re going to sort policing out, ‘cause they got rid of Batley police station, didn’t they? Policing, anti-social behaviour. They probably all say they’re going to do that, but it’s the fact that somebody spoke to me. And he even says ‘I can get George Galloway to come and visit you if you want’.”
She is not impressed with Boris Johnson (“he puts hope into people, then he just crushes it”) but her partner disagrees and will be voting Tory. “I’m just Conservative ’cause I think they’re doing a good job,” he says. “Labour to me are spend, spend, spend and don’t care about what’s happening in future, they just want to spend money. And then it puts us in shit… Conservatives, they come across as being obviously a bit middle class, upper class, which around here we’re not. But they’re educated.”
In Cleckheaton, typically a Liberal Democrat/Tory area, there is another under-reported side of the by-election to be found. This is where Leadbeater has a personal vote. Canvassers sent to streets near where her parents live are told that day specifically to say they are calling from Kim Leadbeater’s campaign rather than from the party. One door-knocker says she was the most locally well-known candidate they have ever campaigned for, with supportive residents clearly “voting Kim not Labour”. The long leaflet distributed in these parts does not feature the word “Labour” at all.
While Leadbeater’s local roots are an asset, there are difficulties with her local focus. These voters raise complaints about the council, the perception that investment goes to other parts of Kirklees over Batley, and Tracy Brabin, who was MP here until being elected West Yorkshire mayor in May.
Although known within Labour as a warm figure with a bright personality, Brabin is raised as a negative for the party by constituents who claim she didn’t do enough as an MP or who are insulted that she “legged it” and triggered this by-election. The mayor is knocking on doors during this campaign, though, and I’m told she is in fact very optimistic – unlike most of the parliamentary party – about Labour’s chances of holding onto the seat.
On the Friday before polling day, a group of men are aggressive towards Leadbeater in the street as a Birmingham activist shouts at her about LGBT-inclusive education. WhatsApps have reportedly been sent around the constituency referencing Leadbeater’s sexuality. There is a grim mood among local Labour supporters. “Awful, just awful. Hardest day of the campaign so far today,” one messaged on Friday evening.
Abuse in the campaign escalates on Sunday evening, when Labour activists are physically assaulted on the doorstep and the police are called by Brabin. “The worst day,” says the same local member that night, after a new low is reached. Leadbeater is given a breather by her team over the weekend and is not available for an interview during my visit.
Labour’s candidate, a personal trainer and a Jo Cox Foundation ambassador, says she has never seen herself as a “political animal”. Unfortunately for the party’s chances of re-election, she is being squeezed by two intensely political messages: the Tory candidate Ryan Stephenson who says he has Boris Johnson’s ear and can bring investment to the constituency; Galloway who says Labour has abandoned Muslim voters and Keir Starmer needs to go.
The Leadbeater campaign is driven by local issues, such as crime, green spaces and the state of the roads. I get well-acquainted with this last local concern myself, tripping on a hole in the pavement while canvassing and taking a visit to the nearest hospital (in Dewsbury) the next morning when the swelling of my ankle has not gone down. It is only a sprain, thankfully, and I am pleased to report that the A&E was highly efficient.
But many of Leadbeater’s top lines relate to decisions for which Labour-run Kirklees Council is held responsible, such as closing down the local police station. Labour had the same problem in Hartlepool, and in the last general election: despite not being in government for a decade, the opposition party is seen as the establishment wherever it has had MPs for years and is blamed for cuts compelled by Tory austerity.
An MP close to the campaign says it is “nowhere near as bad as Hartlepool” and predicts a narrow Labour win – if there is a large-scale get-out-the-vote (GOTV) operation on Thursday. But locals admit that staff are tired, there is a lack of leadership within the campaign as those involved pull in different directions, and the atmosphere is downcast despite Leadbeater’s determination to bring enthusiasm and energy to it.
Potholes and anti-social behaviour aside, Leadbeater’s strongest message is simply that she is a decent person, hard-working, with deep local roots. There is a theory that the seat can be held as long as Labour beats the Tories outside the town of Batley. But with Galloway not only taking votes from Muslim voters dissatisfied with the current Labour leadership, and the Conservative candidate quietly getting out his own vote in blue parts of the constituency, that may not be possible.