Socialist Alternative

Batley and Spen: Labour win masks deeper crisis for Starmer’s ‘New Blairism’

Labour’s narrow victory in the Batley and Spen by-election, whilst confounding the polls and giving Starmer some breathing space as leader of the Labour Party, has also revealed further fault lines in Labour’s working class heartlands. The by-election has been in the media spotlight  for the last few weeks, with the right-wing media eagerly anticipating a Tory victory, following Labour’s defeat in Hartlepool.

In Batley, there were a total of 16 candidates and all but one actually had no links to the area. Many candidates, particularly on the far-right, were parachuted in, to exploit the recent situation at Batley Grammar School, which had attracted wide media coverage from the right-wing press after controversy erupted over depictions of the Prophet Muhammad which were put on display to pupils. Even Jayda Frenson, former leader of Britain First tried to exploit this by trying to sow division among the working class voters in the area by appealing to racist prejudice and Islamophobia. Despite the three far-right candidates trying to whip up division, this did not attract popularity, with all three candidates losing their electoral deposits! 

Far-right ideas have had some traction in the area in the recent period, with the likes of ex-UKIP figure Paul Halloran and Danny Lockwood having some prominence – the latter being known to run a print shop for ‘Tommy Robinson’. However this has always been countered by the left and a “Free Speech” Rally  organised by Halloran a week before the election, featuring TV actor-turned reactionary anti-‘woke’ warrior Laurence Fox as a speaker, was pitifully small. An anti-racism rally two days later was much better attended.

Labour shedding support

The Batley seat has been held by the Labour Party for over 20 years, and until recently the local Kirklees Council had a Labour majority. But many people have been questioning why Labour should receive their support when they have overseen draconian cuts to public services, housing, transport and jobs. Many local residents feel they have been taken for granted, especially its Muslim community – currently around 20% of the local population. Labour’s poor position on the national oppression of the Palestinian people and the recent inspiring Palestine protests was exploited by George Galloway, running for the recently-formed Workers Party of Britain.

Kim Leadbeater, the Labour candidate, was clearly selected to gain a sympathy vote for the Labour Party. Kim is the sister of former MP Jo Cox, who was murdered by far-right fanatic Thomas Mair in 2016. Labour even broke its own rules in selecting Leadbeater because she had only been a party member for a few weeks, yet their rules state that a party member needs to be in the party for 12 months before standing for public office. This clearly showed the Labour Party leadership was panicking about another repeat of the Hartlepool disaster. They had no genuine working class candidate that could appeal to the people of Batley and Spen and instead attempted to pull on the heartstrings of the local population and win a sympathy vote.

Tory candidate barely seen

The Tories, hoping to repeat the Hartlepool result, selected Leeds City councillor Ryan Stephenson as their candidate, and despite or perhaps because of him not being known locally, they instead relied on Boris Johnson’s visits to Kirklees and the ‘vaccine bounce’. Whilst this tactic may have worked for the Tories in Hartlepool, where there was a straight run off between Labour and the Tories, it failed in Batley, partly because of the sympathy vote but also because of Galloway’s profile, especially in the last two weeks.

Clearly, although the trend towards Labour collapse and Tory victory in many ‘red wall’ seats continues, this result for Stephenson shows an arrogance and complacency creeping into the Tory Party that backfired. Stephenson and his team seem to have thought that sitting back and doing nothing would guarantee him a safe victory while Leadbeater and Galloway battled it out. But just like with Labour’s collapsing working class vote, ordinary people cannot be expected to vote for any party on faith alone – not least when neither of the two frontrunners in this election had anything substantial in policies to offer working class people in the constituency.

Galloway’s campaign

Immediately prior to election day, George Galloway was polling at 6%, and whilst not always accurate, it was believed that Galloway would be the one to cost Labour the seat. However, given the toxic campaign Galloway waged, it is likely that he took away votes from the Tories too. 

Galloway rightly focussed on the Labour Party’s poor position on Israel/Palestine and Kashmir, claiming he was standing to expose Starmer’s leadership. He undoubtedly attracted a layer of disillusioned working class voters, showing the potential for a serious challenge from the left which could begin the process of rebuilding a new party for working people. However, he also thrived off attempts to whip up inter-communal division in the area, much to the dismay of many of those living in the constituency. Tearing a page from his past record as a close ally of Nigel Farage and buddying up with Brexit Party figures in Scotland, Galloway tacitly welcomed the endorsement of millionaire property developer and anti-LGBTQ+ activist Shakeel Afsar, who had travelled all the way from outside in the West Midlands to spew homophobic hatred in the constituency under the false and dishonest pretence of ‘representing’ Muslim voters.

Galloway spoke at the “Free Speech” rally organised by Paul Halloran, and joined by Laurence Fox the week before the election. Disgracefully he used language and rhetoric, guaranteed to sow division among the working class population, by taking a homophobic and transphobic stance. On 25 June Galloway complained about “transmania”, sex and gender in an article for Russia Today. He told anti-BLM, anti-feminist and climate change-denying website Spiked how Labour is “infatuated” with the issue of trans rights, repeated the “transmania” slur and said it was putting off working class voters. He also told Spiked that the issue in fact had not come up on the doorstep. And yet the next day, during the “Freedom of Speech” event, he explained he didn’t want primary school children taught “that there’s 99 genders, that men can become women.”

In the same speech, Galloway said he did not want children taught “how to masturbate” or “about anal sex” and “parents chest-feeding their children.” Clearly attempting to appeal to the religious right, Galloway the opportunist was attempting to infect division and hatred towards the LGBTQ+ community. Galloway is not on his own on the left in taking such a position, with an infamous anti-trans cartoon being published in the Morning Star last year, and continued attacks in articles, including by some trade union leaders against trans people.

This approach of resting on reactionary ideas to shore up a base is dangerous and points in a direction firmly away from the creation of political representation for recent movements fighting for the needs of workers and all the oppressed in society. Not only does Galloway’s approach pose dangers for LGBTQ+ people, but for Muslims and other religious minorities too. This was on full display with the shocking articles from Dan Hodges of the Daily Telegraph and briefings from unnammed right-wing Labour officials which placed the blame on the Muslim community’s “antisemitism” for Labour’s poor showing, rather than the real reason in Starmer’s lacklustre approach.

In the end, Galloway managed to get over 8,000 votes – almost triple what he was polling at. An attack on the local council for “restricting free elections” by taking down his posters in the last few days of the election for not following election rules, had the possible effect of taking expected voters away from both Labour and Conservatives. By choosing to take a populist route, sowing division rather than uniting working class voters across all faiths, sexuality and identity, Galloway has left a dangerous legacy of mistrust and division.

Overall, the lower turnouts at by-elections in Hartlepool, Chesham and Amersham, and most recently in Batley and Spen would seem to confirm Socialist Alternative’s previous analysis that the principal focus of the immediate struggle is no longer on the electoral plane. Following Corbyn’s resignation from the Labour Party leadership, working class activists and youth fighting climate change, gender violence, Black Lives Matter and cuts to the NHS increasingly no longer see any point in engaging on the electoral front, instead taking to the streets to voice their growing discontent. None of the U-Turns executed by the Tories in the last 18 months have been as a result of the supposed opposition front bench. Instead change has been forced on Johnson by social movements on the streets and through online work during the heights of the pandemic such as the reversal of the GCSE/A-Level marking fiasco and free school meals. 

That is why Socialist Alternative is calling for conferences of resistance that could bring together these campaigners, protesters, the oppressed and the youth engaged in struggle. These are the forces from which a new mass party of the working class could emerge, which would have to have a programme to staunchly resist racism, LGBTQ+phobia, while appealing to the need for a united movement of the working class to end division. It won’t happen overnight, nor may it immediately have fully formed ideas, however Socialist Alternative is committed in building support for these movements and drawing them together under socialist ideas. If you agree, get involved and join us!