Galloway bid for Batley and Spen seat mired in intimidation claims

West Yorkshire byelection campaign accused of fuelling anti-LGBTQ+ rhetoric to disarm Labour candidate

On 27 May this year, while most of Westminster was still digesting the explosive evidence from the former government adviser Dominic Cummings, two other well-known political agitators were visiting the West Yorkshire constituency of Batley and Spen.

Laurence Fox, fresh from his failed London mayoral bid, posted a selfie taken with Paul Halloran, an independent candidate who garnered 12% of the vote in the 2019 general election with the Heavy Woollen District Independents.

On the same day, George Galloway, fresh from his failed bid for the Scottish parliament, launched his campaign, announcing: “I’m standing against Keir Starmer. If Keir Starmer loses this byelection, it’s curtains for Keir Starmer.”

Just over a month later, the byelection has been mired in accusations of aggression and intimidatory tactics from Galloway’s campaign, which some say has fuelled anti-LGBTQ+ rhetoric against activists and Kim Leadbeater, Labour’s candidate. In recent days, Leadbeater has been seen accompanied by uniformed police officers while campaigning.

Meanwhile, Galloway, who is standing as an independent, under the banner of the Workers Party of Britain, has branded the Conservative hopeful “the Invisible Man” and has launched legal action against Kirklees council in a row over the size of the font on his posters.

On Wednesday, Ferhan Khan, a Muslim LGBTQ+ activist, said he felt Galloway had treated him “with contempt” during a clash; Khan had said Galloway’s supporters were “physically intimidating”.

Khan, who is is a Scot, went to Batley after seeing a video of Leadbeater being aggressively confronted by Shakeel Afsar, a campaigner who led protests in Birmingham against LGBTQ+ education in schools.

“If he’s going to go after the Muslim vote in Batley, what about LGBTQIA Muslims? Should they feel safe? Will he protect them from the discrimination which unfortunately does exist within our community?” Khan said.

Jack Deakin, a 22-year-old Labour councillor from Warwickshire, has said that issues over LGBTQ+ education in schools came up repeatedly on doorsteps and that he had faced homophobic abuse while campaigning.

Deakin said Galloway supporters had mocked the way that he moved and spoke, and that he had had several people shout “bondu”, a Punjabi word for gay, at him in the street, in efforts to intimidate Labour activists. “They are trying to intimidate us and they don’t want us to get out the vote on the day in those roads and those areas.”

He said he had had to counter myths about Labour’s policy on education, explaining that “primary school children are not taught about sex, just that some people have two mums or two dads”. Deakin added: “Most aren’t homophobic, but Galloway’s supporters are stirring the pot. When the circus leaves, Kim will still be living here.”

A spokesperson for Galloway said he condemned all forms of physical intimidation. He also said two of his senior campaign staff were LGBTQ+ and that Galloway was awarded a Stonewall award 30 years ago as an MP.

Ryan Stephenson, standing for the Conservatives , has kept a low profile during the increasingly tense campaign, successfully managing to avoid answering questions on knotty issues such as Israel-Palestine or about a teacher’s suspension from Batley grammar school after showing images of the prophet Mohammed during a religious studies lesson.

By contrast, Galloway has made these controversial topics the crux of his campaign, piling pressure on Labour to respond. He had previously defended protesters outraged at the religious picture being shown, saying: “People have got a right to defend religious sensibilities and be offended by gratuitous egregious insults.” He described it as a “hate poster” in an interview with the Guardian.

However, in an event organised by Fox and Halloran last Thursday, billed as a “free speech rally” in support of the suspended teacher, Galloway sidestepped the issue, focusing instead on a diatribe against “cancel culture”, telling the crowd he did not want his young children at primary school aged seven and nine to be taught about anal sex. “I don’t want them taught how to masturbate. I don’t want them taught there are 99 genders. I don’t want them taught that men can become women by the mere act of declaring themselves to be, and end up in an Olympic team, beating the actual girls and women.”

As well as the inflammatory rhetoric, there is also suspicion among Labour campaigners that insiders are passing information about canvassing plans and internal polling numbers to his team, fuelling an atmosphere of paranoia.

There are obvious physical signs of a hard-fought election campaign on the ground: posters, banners and stickers plastered over lampposts all over the constituency, Galloway’s vintage green and yellow campaign bus continually on tour, and a car with a megaphone passing through Asian areas of Batley blaring out: “Do not vote Labour, it’s a waste of time, look at the roads.”

Support from influential local business people and property developers has allowed Galloway to set up three campaign headquarters, and Worker Party activists to bed down in the constituency for the campaign, housed by local residents.

Chris Williamson, the former MP for Derby North, who was suspended from Labour in a row over anti-semitism, has also campaigned locally on Galloway’s behalf.

However, much of the campaign has been hard fought on Whatsapp and Facebook, making it harder for the opposition to track. Over recent days, a letter from Muslim women castigating aggressive behaviour and misogyny from some has widely circulated among community WhatsApp groups, and a defiant response has been swiftly sent back.

Several say it had “divided the community”. Farrukh Patel, 49, said: “It has gone messy. It’s all been personal and attacking each other. I’ve never known anything like this before. What’s that all about? It’s not our culture.”

Contributor

Maya Wolfe-Robinson

The GuardianTramp

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