Following the Batley & Spen by-election, Nick Lowles – who campaigned in the seat – reflects on the far right’s defeat, and the challenges that remain to be tackled in the area.
The results of the Batley and Spen by-election are a comprehensive humiliation for the far right. Anne Marie Waters, who received just 97 votes, and Jayda Fransen a mere 50 votes. Both polled fewer votes than the Monster Raving Loony Party. In fact, the five far right candidates received a combined 538 votes.
The politics of the far right was comprehensively rejected in this election.
But the toxicity of the campaign, and what the election tells us about the nature of the far right challenge today, shows that there is no room for any complacency.
Far right shambles
The by-election had been called by the election of Tracy Brabin, the MP for Batley and Spen, to the post of West Yorkshire Mayor. To the surprise of many, Kim Leadbetter, sister of the late Jo Cox, who was murdered by a neo-nazi in 2016, took the seat for Labour by the smallest of margins over the Conservatives.
The far right vote was derisory, and even more so given several factors which should have been helpful to them locally. The area was a former BNP stronghold, with the party having a councillor in the area and receiving 3,685 votes in the constituency, a 7.6% share, in the 2010 General Election. More significantly though, the school where a teacher showed a picture of Mohammed to students in an RE lesson is in the constituency and should have been useful campaign ammunition for all anti-Islam and anti-multicultural parties.
Thankfully, the far right parties ran atrocious campaigns, even by their own low standards. There was very little campaigning by any of them and the widely promoted For Britain rally last Saturday never materialised after cheerleader Stephen Lennon (aka Tommy Robinson) failed to show. Instead, our spotters noted that the 20 For Britain supporters who were in the area ended up driving around the constituency, only stopping to allow for candidate Anne Marie Waters to pose for photos and to cover up Galloway posters with their own.
Campaigning for HOPE
HOPE not hate, by contrast, was active throughout the campaign, delivering three different leaflets into streets where our data suggested that they would be best received.
We had an amazing response, with several people putting up our first leaflet, which doubled up as a poster on one side, up in their windows. Just as importantly, we made many good links locally, all of which puts us in good stead for our post-election work.
We knew from the start that we needed to be active in this seat. It has a record of pockets of BNP support. And our friend Jo Cox would expect nothing less than for HOPE not hate to get stuck in. We also feared the impact of the much-trailed Stephen Lennon rally, not least with the fall out of the school row. The threat they pose can never be underestimated – and must be confronted.
A massive thank you must go out to everyone who helped in our campaign.
A toxic campaign
While the far right have been humiliated, George Galloway’s attempts to use the politics of division to win office fortunately fell short. This campaign should be another stain on his reputation. His negative, angry and aggressive campaign created a toxic climate on the ground, with Labour Party campaigners chased, abused and even physically attacked on the streets.
Galloway campaigned heavily against ‘woke culture’ and there was hardly a speech, interview or leaflet where he didn’t attack LGBT rights, the trans community and sex education in schools. This only further toxified the local political discourse, and the Labour candidate received a torrent of online abuse for her own sexuality.
While Galloway ran a divisive and misogynistic campaign, it is important that we differentiate that the candidate from the people who voted for him. Just like BNP voters of old, people vote for extreme and divisive candidates for a whole variety of reasons and many of these are grounded in real or perceived grievances. While Galloway’s anti-LGBT narrative might have attracted the support of some (Muslim and non-Muslim) opposed to LGBT rights, others would have voted for him for a variety of other reasons too.
Understanding, addressing and even challenging these grievances has to be a vital lesson for all political parties going forward. A failure to do so will only allow these grievances and disillusionment to grow and harden.
The Labour Party was right to call out Galloway’s divisive and misogynist campaign, but there are some questions about their own campaign, both in taking voters for granted, viewing minority communities as homogenous voting blocs and playing communal politics themselves.
The distribution of a crass leaflet with a picture of Boris Johnson with Indian leader Narendra Modi was clearly designed to tap into anti-Modi feelings amongst Muslim voters and will undoubtedly rebound and only further inflame tensions between Hindu voters and Labour in other parts of the country. It is one thing if Labour took a principled stand against Modi and his policies nationally, but it doesn’t, and this leaflet needs to be seen for what it was.
Election Day was the start of a new phase
While the political and media circus (sadly that is how many locals view it) will now move on from the area, the toxicity stirred up by this election will remain. There is lots of work to do and this is what HOPE not hate will now be focusing on. We will be supporting a number of local initiatives that seek to bring local people together and joining with the local More in Common group and the Jo Cox Foundation to hold a community fun day in earlier September, similar to the one we organised together in 2016, shortly after Jo’s murder, which was attended by over 1,500 people.
To help build this event, and to promote a more unifying message, we will also produce a tabloid newspaper which will distributed across the constituency in August. The tabloid, similar to one we are also producing in Bradford, will promote a message of togetherness, challenge and counter hate and division, and encourage people to get involved in local community and voluntary groups and access local services.
The by-election challenged cohesion across Batley and Spen and while voters overwhelmingly rejected those spreading hate, we cannot kid ourselves that it is job done. Quite the contrary. Division, suspicion and mistrust runs deep locally and has even been hardened during this campaign. But we can at least move forward hoping that the comprehensive rejection of far right extremism, coupled with the popular revulsion for Galloway’s divisive campaign (as best exemplified by the open letter put out by Muslim women on the eve of poll), will give confidence for more people to speak out more publicly.
HOPE defeated hate yesterday, but now a lot of hard work will be needed to put into action Jo Cox’s eloquent words: “We are far more united and have far more in common than that which divides us.” HOPE not hate is willing and ready to play our role in doing this in by supporting local leaders Batley and Spen.