The Batley and Spen by-election was a close contest that went right down to the wire with few commentators risking calling the result before it was announced. At 5:25am it was declared. Kim Leadbeater was the new Labour MP for Batley and Spen, beating her nearest rival, the Conservative candidate Ryan Stephenson, by 323 votes. It was close but a clear victory for Labour.
Leadbeater’s acceptance speech was always going to be poignant. This was the seat held by her older sister, Jo Cox, at the time of her murder in 2016. Cox, who won the seat for Labour in 2015, was killed by a terrorist who held extreme right-wing views and targeted Cox because of her work with refugees.
But what was striking – if also sobering and shocking in equal measure given the context – was that Leadbeater also had recourse to thank West Yorkshire police for their protection of her during the campaign. “Sadly”, she said, “I have needed them more than ever.”
In fact, even before her victory had been declared, she released a statement pointing to the “intimidation and violence of those who had convened in the constituency with the sole aim of sowing division”.
Discord, division and dirty tricks
A total of 16 candidates put their hats in the ring for the race in Batley and Spen – a number of whom represented far-right political parties. But it was the presence of George Galloway standing as an independent for the Workers Party which seriously threatened to undermine Labour’s chances of retaining the seat it had held since 1997.
Galloway was determined to woo traditional Labour supporters, including the significant Muslim constituent in Batley and Spen. Capitalising on escalating tensions in the Middle East, Galloway sought to paint the Labour leader Sir Keir Starmer as anti-Muslim. His intention was to set up the vote as a referendum on Starmer’s leadership, to split the Labour vote and ultimately force Starmer out of office.
To this end, he also attempted to attract white working-class voters by building a narrative of the Labour leader as “woke” rather than for the working class.
In the run-up to July 1 there were deeply disturbing reports coming out of Batley and Spen detailing the intimidation and abuse of candidates. There were accusations of dog-whistle racism and homophobia, fake leaflets and foul play. The campaign descended into one of the most bitter and divisive by-elections of recent years.
Tracy Brabin, who had won the seat after the murder of Cox and whose win in the West Yorkshire mayoral election triggered the by-election, described witnessing her group of canvassers “being egged, pushed and forced to the ground and kicked in the head”.
It was by no means the only time such disturbing strategies have been exploited. In fact, similar divisions were present in the 2015 general election in Bradford West, an election in which Galloway was again present, this time fighting to retain his seat. At a hustings at the university, the then conservative candidate, George Grant, captured the “wild west” nature of the campaign by likening it to a 19th-century rotten borough rather than a 21st-century parliamentary democracy.
That election too descended into discrediting individuals and delving into their private lives rather than concentrating on the issues faced by people on the ground.
Changing nature of campaigns
Electioneering is by its very nature divisive, effectively asking the electorate to vote for party or candidate A and not party or candidate B. But dirty tricks or underhand tactics used to discredit opponents are by no means inevitable. And yet, while the notion of a sense of fair play and decency may be engraved in the nation’s idea of itself, the 2019 general election demonstrated how easy it is to resort to electioneering in bad faith in the age of social media.
From faking fact checks to manipulating videos, the 2019 election threw up a whole catalogue of ways in which to unduly undermine political opponents. Indeed, divisive and personal campaigns may become more prevalent in an era of online campaigning. Something not unique to the UK, of course. The 2020 US presidential election was also divisive in nature as were the state elections in India’s West Bengal earlier this year.
In Batley and Spen, in the end, as the Leadbeater pointed out in her speech, the people voted for hope not hate. Yet the constituency is deeply divided and will take much work to bring together. Leadbeater was the only major candidate on the ballot box who was local to the area. While the others leave, she remains, in her words, “the best person” to get on with the job of reconciliation.