The Batley and Spen byelection has descended into allegations of dirty tricks as Labour’s campaign was targeted by fake leaflets and the party was accused by one of its own MPs of using “dog-whistle racism” to win votes.
Labour was criticised for distributing a flyer to Muslim voters showing Boris Johnson with India’s nationalist prime minister, Narendra Modi, in 2019, along with the message: “Don’t risk a Tory MP who is not on your side.”
The Labour MP Navendu Mishra said the “divisive” leaflet sought to turn communities against each other and exposed a “hierarchy of racism” within the party. He added: “We beat our opponents based on policies, not by dog-whistle racism.”
Separately, the Trades Union Congress (TUC) was understood to be taking legal advice over fake Labour leaflets that said the party believed “the biggest threat to our precious multicultural society is whiteness”. Labour has reported them to the police and the Electoral Commission.
The leaflets show Starmer taking the knee, as well as the England football team, and say the Labour leader “believes that it is high time that white people acknowledge their privilege”.
A spokesperson for the TUC said: “The TUC has nothing to do with this leaflet, and condemns these dirty tricks. Whoever is responsible for this divisive leaflet does not deserve the votes of working people and should be ashamed of themselves.”
It is an offence for campaigners in a byelection to produce a leaflet without an imprint, which discloses who is promoting the subject matter.
Tensions are running high in the constituency where Labour is facing a difficult challenge from the Conservatives and the former MP George Galloway, who has positioned his campaign as a leftwing challenge to Keir Starmer. A number of far-right parties are also standing.
The campaign turned ugly at the weekend when Labour activists were punched, kicked and pelted with eggs in an incident being investigated by the police. Boris Johnson condemned the violence as “utterly sickening and appalling” on a visit to the constituency on Monday.
Kim Leadbeater, Labour’s candidate and the sister of the murdered Batley MP Jo Cox, has also been abused in the street and faced homophobic statements on social media about her and her support for LGBT education.
Labour and its opponents were accused of promoting divisive leaflets on Monday amid fears of further ugly incidents before the vote on Thursday.
The party was accused of trying to appeal to the town’s sizeable Muslim population with a leaflet showing Johnson shaking hands with Modi, India’s Hindu nationalist prime minister. It is understood at least one MP has complained formally to the party while Labour Friends of India called for the leaflet to be withdrawn.
Mishra, who resigned from the shadow cabinet in October, said he had faced racism within the party because of his Indian heritage and Hindu faith. He said: “The party needs to do a lot better when it comes to relationships with all communities. With regards to leaflets like this, we don’t expect this from Labour.”
A Labour spokesperson said it stood by the flyer: “This leaflet makes it clear that a vote for anybody other than Kim would lead to a Tory MP who would support a prime minister who insults Muslim women and calls it a joke, refuses to deal with Islamophobia in his party, and fails to speak out on human rights abuses in Kashmir.”
Tracy Brabin, the former Labour MP who quit after being elected mayor of West Yorkshire, said: “We know why tensions are rising in our streets. Those who want to sow division are not welcome in our community. The actions of these people do not represent the Batley and Spen I know. We are kinder than this.”
The shadow minister Holly Lynch said Galloway and his supporters had “created a toxic environment that is suffocating democracy and drowning out the voices of local people”. Galloway’s campaign had robustly denied it was behind any of the abuse or attacks.
In a viral video, Leadbeater was confronted by a man who challenged her over the situation in Kashmir and her stance on LGBT+ education in schools. Leadbeater, who asked the man not to shout at her, was pursued and heckled.
Virendra Sharma, the Labour MP and chair of the all-party parliamentary group on India, described the leaflet featuring Johnson with Modi as “cheap divide and rule politics not worthy of the Labour party” and said he had asked for it to be withdrawn.
He added: “Under Keir’s leadership, the party has worked hard to rebuild trust with [the] Indian community. Leaflets such as this will undo all of this good work and engagement and I have asked for it to be withdrawn. In London [the mayor] Sadiq Khan won by bringing people together and uniting the community; we can do the same anywhere. To do anything else will divide our community and play into Tory hands.”