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Batley and Spen by-election: Palestine becomes potential dealbreaker

Labour is scrabbling to secure the votes of Batley's large Muslim minority before the 1 July poll, with last month's Gaza war a recurring theme on doorsteps
A street in Batley, a town in West Yorkshire in the north of England (MEE/Alex MacDonald)
By in
Batley, England

It is a political truism in the UK that foreign policy issues don't swing elections. Ordinary people, supposedly, are motivated by "bread and butter" issues around housing, schools, and law and order, and are unmotivated by events happening in far-off lands.

That common sense is being severely put to the test in the northern England constituency of Batley and Spen, where the question of Israel-Palestine looks set to be a primary factor as the Labour Party struggles to retain a seat it has held since 1997.

Batley, located in the Kirklees district of West Yorkshire, is a town like a number of others in the north of England.

The cotton mills that dot the edges of Batley, which were once the heart of commercial life here, are now either empty or occupied by small businesses. One of the biggest employers is still the Fox's Biscuits factory, meaning manufacturing is still a significant employer.

However, government figures released prior to the onset of the Covid-19 pandemic showed that 28,468 children in the Kirklees area were living in poverty - a figure that had been steadily rising in recent years - while more than half of the children in Batley are thought to be living in poverty.

Kim Leadbetter and George Galloway campaign posters, candidates for Labour and the Workers Party of Britain respectively (MEE/Alex MacDonald)
Kim Leadbeater and George Galloway campaign posters, candidates for Labour and the Workers Party of Britain respectively (MEE/Alex MacDonald)

A combination of industrial ties and a high number of ethnic minority residents - as of 2016, the South Asian population was around 33 percent in Batley West and 54 percent in Batley East - had kept the seat within the area known (rather dubiously) as the "Red Wall", the northern regions that were once a stronghold for the Labour Party.

But while support for the party has eroded in this region for a number of reasons, not least its decision to support a second referendum on leaving the European Union during the 2019 general election, Labour has generally been able to rely on voters from the British Asian community.

With a by-election in Batley and Spen set for 1 July following the resignation of former MP Tracy Brabin, now even this is in doubt.

'To be honest with you, I'm not even bothered if the Conservatives win. Anybody except Labour. We need to get Keith Starmer out, he's just not bothered'

- Zayd, Batley resident

Zayd, who works in a coffee shop in Batley, said he frankly didn't care who won the by-election - as long as it wasn't Labour.

"Ever since I've been eligible to vote, I've voted Labour, but Keith Starmer has let us down," he told Middle East Eye.

Zayd referred to Labour leader Keir Starmer as "Keith Starmer" throughout, based on a long-running surreal gag put about by his opponents on social media, misnaming the Holborn and St Pancras MP much to the annoyance of his supporters.

"He's let the whole community down in terms of his international foreign policies. The fact is, this area has always been Labour, it's always been a Labour seat. They know Labour's going to win, so they don't need to invest any money around here," he explained.

Outside his small shop, a Palestine flag hung limply on display. Zayd said that Starmer had "pivoted" on the question of Israel-Palestine, citing the Labour leader's perceived hesitance to condemn Israel's recent violence in Gaza and Jerusalem.

Israel's bombardment of the Gaza Strip in May killed 248 Palestinians, including 66 children, while Palestinian rockets killed 13 in Israel, including two children. A further 29 Palestinians were killed by Israeli fire in the occupied West Bank and East Jerusalem during the same period.

While Starmer issued a number of condemnations of the violence and Israel's actions in Jerusalem, many felt he equivocated too much between the two sides and was reluctant to involve the party in the issue, in contrast to his staunchly pro-Palestinian predecessor Jeremy Corbyn.

"Just for the sake of land, people are dying and it's happening in daylight. They're blaming Palestinians for throwing rockets and everything, but they don't have anything, they don't even have an airport. Maybe they throw stones back, but they have to retaliate somehow," said Zayd.

"To be honest with you, I'm not even bothered if the Conservatives win. Anybody except Labour. We need to get Keith Starmer out, he's just not bothered."

Zayd said he would instead be handing his vote to George Galloway, a former Labour MP who is campaigning with his Workers Party of Britain (WPB) in the by-election. Though Zayd said Galloway wasn't "perfect", he said the veteran Scot's policies were better than Labour's in terms of promising to invest in the local community and his support for the Palestinians.

Losing the Muslim vote

Zayd's perspective is becoming increasingly common in the area, and Labour Party campaigners are worried that Palestine and its resonance among Muslim voters could end up losing them the seat.

The Indian Muslim Welfare Society (IMWS), founded in 1957, is the largest Muslim organisation working across the area. It counts 3,000 household members in Batley.

On the cover of the latest issue of its magazine Paigaam, a photo shows a Palestinian child throwing a rock at an Israeli tank, with the headline above reading "Palestinians also have the right to defend themselves".

General manager Nadeem Raja said that IMWS had raised £80,000 from the local community for Gaza, adding that his organisation had people and partners working on the ground to make sure it was delivered.

According to Raja, IMWS members are saying they have increasingly become disillusioned with Labour over a number of issues, including Palestine.

Nadeem Raja, standing in the lobby of the Indian Muslim Welfare Society (MEE/Alex MacDonald)
Nadeem Raja, standing in the lobby of the Indian Muslim Welfare Society (MEE/Alex MacDonald)

"Labour is very well known as Red Wall and possibly it [still] will be. But the community feel Keir Starmer has been very irresponsible," he told MEE.

"Instead of speaking the truth, he has said Israel has the right to defend itself. Yes, we're not disagreeing with that - but at the same time he never uttered even a word [about Palestine] until recently, because he realised Labour might lose the seat." 

On 9 June, speaking in the House of Commons, Starmer called for the establishment of a Palestinian state - something that commentators suggested was a response to fears the issue would harm the party in Batley and Spen.

Raja said the constituency's demographics meant Muslim voters could well end up being the deciding factor.

"If you do the rough calculations: 50 percent turnout is a big turnout in by-elections and the way Muslim voters feel this time... this time they want to send out a message to the national party and the local party that Muslim votes matter," he said.

Distancing the party

Since taking the leadership in 2020, Starmer has set out to distance the party from his predecessor Corbyn, whose pro-Palestinian credentials saw him mired in allegations of antisemitism, something that right-wing media outlets and commentators often linked to a desire to cultivate the Muslim vote.

Starmer provoked anger from Muslim communities after he described India's human rights abuses in Kashmir as a "matter for the Indian parliament" and in April cancelled an arranged iftar dinner during Ramadan after pressure from the Jewish Chronicle over one of the attendees.

While the new Labour leader has been quick to expel members of his party accused of antisemitism (suspending Corbyn himself in October 2020), there has been a perception that accusations of Islamophobia are not treated with equal seriousness.

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The Labour candidate for Batley and Spen is Kim Leadbeater, sister of former MP for the seat Jo Cox, who was murdered in a far-right attack in 2016.

A widely popular MP whose name now adorns a number of buildings in Batley, Labour hoped the Cox connection would resonate with voters - despite the fact that Leadbeater had only just joined the party at the time of her selection, which excluded two local councillors and led to accusations of a "stitch-up".

On Wednesday, a number of Muslim and pro-Palestinian organisations - including the local branch of Palestine campaigners Friends of Al-Aqsa - issued a letter to Starmer warning that the votes of Muslim had been "taken for granted" by the party.

They also cited polling released this week by Survation and the Labour Muslim Network that showed support dropping for the party among British Muslims, with 22 percent saying they had a favourable attitude towards his leadership and 29 percent unfavourable.

"The issues facing Muslims in our constituency are vast and deep rooted. Some are consistent with those you may see in areas similar to ours; a lack of housing, school resources being cut, closing GPs and hospitals etc," said the letter.

"Others are specific to our community and our area. This includes concerns regarding the rising tide of Islamophobia, the racism inherent in the Prevent duty as well as ongoing international crises in Palestine, Kashmir, Xinjiang and beyond."

They said that without change, "local congregations, members and communities will conclude that the Labour Party no longer have our best interests at heart".

The Galloway factor

Moving swiftly to take advantage of Labour's woes is George Galloway.

Hazret, a taxi driver, said his cousins had been actively campaigning for Galloway. "Especially Muslim people are supporting him, because of Palestine and this sort of thing. He promised the people he will help them," he told MEE. "A lot of time I ask customers who they support and they say 'we support Labour - but this time we'll be supporting him.'"

A former Big Brother star and MP, expelled from Labour in 2003 after suggesting British soldiers should disobey orders in Iraq, Galloway has been a highly polarising figure in the UK, accused in the past of rape apologism (an accusation he dismissed) and of sympathising with Iraqi President Saddam Hussein and Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.

A main road in Batley (MEE/Alex MacDonald)
A main road in Batley (MEE/Alex MacDonald)

Despite this, Galloway has repeatedly successfully capitalised on Muslim disillusionment with the Labour Party.

In 2005, in the London constituency of Bethnal Green and Bow, and then again in 2012 in Bradford West, Galloway won seats with the aid of Muslim voters, defeating the Labour Party.

While it is doubtful whether Galloway's WPB will be able to actually win Batley and Spen, there are already fears among Labour activists that his campaign could end up splitting their core vote and handing the seat to the ruling Conservative Party.

In Batley, two members of Galloway's campaign team told MEE that they were just en route to the local bookmakers, where they said the odds on Galloway's victory had been slashed.

According to Coral, Galloway is currently on 50/1 odds to win, compared to 2/1 for Leadbeater and 2/5 for Conservative candidate Ryan Stephenson. William Hill has the Conservatives on 1/3, Labour at 5/2 and the WPB at 33/1.

'The white working-class and the Muslim working-class have both got a gripe with Labour and they're taking this opportunity to send them a message and teach them a lesson this time round'

- Yasser, Workers Party of Britain

"It means people are putting money on him to win - some are limiting bets to £2.50. It looks like the tide is on our side, the momentum is on our side," said campaigner Yasser.

He argued that, despite perceptions, support for their candidate came as much from "white working class" communities in the region as from Muslims, saying both groups had been let down by the Labour Party.

"People are not happy with what's going on within the Labour Party. The party has let down not just the strongest part, the Muslim community, over his stance on Kashmir and Palestine, locally they've been let down by the Labour Party-run council," Yasser said.

"The white working class and the Muslim working class have both got a gripe with Labour and they're taking this opportunity to send them a message and teach them a lesson this time round."

Increasing concern that Galloway could threaten its vote has led Labour to try and play up Leadbeater's credentials as a campaigner on Palestine, something Times journalist Patrick Maguire described as an "anti-Galloway rearguard".

One photo issued by Leadbeater on Twitter, which showed her attending a fundraiser for Palestine hosted by the IMWS, provoked some backlash from right-wing and Jewish commentators, as the activists wore T-shirts depicting the outline of historic Palestine - leading to accusations she endorsed the "destruction" of Israel.

The result in Batley and Spen is unlikely to have much direct impact on the UK's official democratic make-up.

The Conservative Party holds a large majority in the parliament and whatever happens in Yorkshire, Prime Minister Boris Johnson's grip on power will remain unaffected.

However, losing the seat could end up proving fatal for Starmer's leadership, particularly on the heels of another by-election loss in erstwhile Labour stronghold Hartlepool in early May.

The cause of Starmer's woes are many, of course, with some attributing his collapse in personal ratings - which were high when he first took the role - to his response to the government's handling of the Covid-19 pandemic and his decision to offer consensual support despite one of the world's highest death tolls.

'If my finger hurts, everybody feels the pain. In a similar fashion, anywhere in the world Muslims are in pain, we feel that it's our moral obligation to support them wherever it's possible'

- Nadeem Raja, Indian Muslim Welfare Society

Starmer and his allies have attributed the government's polling success to its vaccination programme, which has seen the majority of the population vaccinated against Covid-19 at one of the fastest rates in the world - a record it shares, coincidentally, with Israel.

However, on Thursday, another by-election in the UK in the constituency of Chesham and Amersham saw the centrist Liberal Democrats defeat the Conservative Party - which had held the seat since 1974 - with a massive majority of 8,028, suggesting that the ruling party is not invincible and immune to challenge.

Despite everything else, a loss for Labour in Batley and Spen could also prove that foreign policy and happenings in distant lands are not something that can be ignored in local politics, especially an issue that provokes as many emotions as Israel-Palestine.

"Being a Muslim, its very important to understand that we believe in the whole Muslim ummah," said Raja.

"If my finger hurts, everybody feels the pain. In a similar fashion, anywhere in the world Muslims are in pain, we feel that it's our moral obligation to support them wherever it's possible."