Last week Labour defied expectations and narrowly won the byelection in Batley and Spen. It is first and foremost a victory for Kim Leadbeater, sister of the murdered MP Jo Cox, who ran a dignified, unifying campaign in the face of homophobic and sexist abuse. But it is also likely to sufficiently shift the political narrative about Labour’s fortunes to buy Keir Starmer more time to present an alternative vision to the one propounded by the toxic, incompetent government of Boris Johnson.
Leadbeater has rightly won accolades for her positive and constructive campaign. It must have taken immense bravery to run in the parliamentary seat held by her sister, killed by a far-right terrorist in 2016. She has spent the years since her sister’s death leading the work of the Jo Cox Foundation in the local area to promote more compassionate and cohesive communities.
How dreadful, then, that the byelection attracted the attentions of the extremist chancer George Galloway, whose brand of divisive politics is not so dissimilar from the far-right views associated with her sister’s death. Galloway, who was sacked from TalkRadio for an allegedly antisemitic tweet, ran a deeply misogynistic campaign against the Labour MP Naz Shah in 2015, and has worked for the Russian and Iranian state TV channels RT and Press TV. He enthusiastically channelled his bigotry into Batley and Spen. Chris Williamson, the MP currently suspended from the Labour party amid the row over antisemitism, campaigned alongside him, and he spoke at a rally with divisive activist Laurence Fox. Labour campaigners report being egged and physically assaulted and subjected to homophobic taunts, no doubt stirred up by Galloway’s use of tropes about sex education in his campaigning.
During the campaign, footage emerged of Leadbeater being verbally abused. She has required police protection during the campaign. That she has been subjected to this is even more shocking in light of what happened to her sister. Such a divisive campaign will leave its mark on her community long after Galloway has stopped giving media interviews. With her longstanding mission to make politics more civil and her community work to bring people together, Leadbeater is the right person to represent Batley and Spen.
While decency triumphed, Galloway still managed to attract more than 8,000 votes, and in this there is a warning for both mainstream parties. For Labour, this byelection win cannot disguise the long-term trends that have eroded its voter base in its heartland seats. Leadbeater was a strong local candidate, but a clear articulation of what Labour is for nationally is still missing. It is early days, but as May’s local election results show, Starmer has not yet done enough to edge Labour back to electability. He has not developed a message that can unite the broad electoral coalition that could deliver Labour a victory under first-past-the-post.
For the Conservatives, their defeat in the Amersham byelection and now in Batley suggests their pitch to the electorate, a big part of which is seeding the culture wars, is not only contemptible but not as effective as they think. In recent months, we have seen ministers try to distract from the government’s handling of the pandemic by picking fights with anti-racist campaigners about statues, with student societies about their common rooms, and with the BBC over lyrics at the Proms. In the recent Chesham and Amersham byelection, this turned off their own heartland voters. Batley and Spen shows another risk of this strategy: there are always extremists on hand who are willing to ride in and run a campaign that is even more toxic and divisive.
Jo Cox was a fierce campaigner against populist extremism; in her own words, “we are far more united and have far more in common than that which divides us”. Five years after her murder, her sister’s victory in Batley and Spen serves as a reminder that the only way politicians should seek to win and govern is through uniting the country around a common vision of who we are, rather than through pitting different groups of people against each other.