The Observer’s Perspective on the Batley and Spen Partial Campaign and Its Results | Editorial observer


Last week Labor defied expectations and narrowly won the by-elections in Batley and Spen. It is above all a victory for Kim Leadbeater, sister of assassinated MP Jo Cox, who led a dignified and unifying campaign against homophobic and sexist abuse. But it’s also likely that it alters the political narrative of Labor’s fortunes enough to give Keir Starmer more time to present an alternative vision to that proposed by Boris Johnson’s toxic and incompetent government.

Leadbeater has been rightly recognized for its positive and constructive campaign. It must have taken immense bravery to stand for the parliamentary seat held by her sister, killed by a far-right terrorist in 2016. She has spent years since her sister’s death leading the work of the Jo Cox Foundation in the region to promote more compassionate and cohesive communities.

How appalling, then, that the by-election caught the attention of extremist Chancellor George Galloway, whose divisive politics are not all that different from the far-right views associated with his sister’s death. Galloway, who was fired from TalkRadio for an allegedly anti-Semitic tweet, waged a deeply misogynistic campaign against Labor MP Naz Shah in 2015, and worked for Russian and Iranian state television stations RT and Press TV. He enthusiastically channeled his bigotry into Batley and Spen. Chris Williamson, the currently suspended Labor MP amid the feud over anti-Semitism, campaigned alongside him and spoke at a rally with divisive activist Laurence Fox. Labor activists report being pushed and physically assaulted and subjected to homophobic taunts, no doubt fueled by Galloway’s use of sex education tropes in his campaign.

During the campaign, images of Leadbeater were verbally assaulted. She asked for police protection during the campaign. That she was subjected to this is even more shocking in light of what happened to her sister. Such a divisive campaign will leave its mark in its community long after Galloway stops giving media interviews. With his long-standing mission to make politics more civil and his community work to bring people together, Leadbeater is the right fit to represent Batley and Spen.

While decency triumphed, Galloway still managed to attract over 8,000 votes, and in that there is a warning for both traditional parties. For Labor, this partial electoral victory cannot mask the long-term trends that have eroded its electoral base in its central seats. Leadbeater was a strong local candidate, but still lacks a clear articulation of what the Labor Party stands for nationally. This is only the start, but as the results of the local election in May show, Starmer has not yet done enough to bring Labor back to run for office. He hasn’t developed a message that can unite the broad electoral coalition that could offer Labor a one-round majority victory.

For the Tories, their defeat in the Amersham by-elections and now Batley suggests their pitch to the electorate, many of whom sows culture wars, is not only despicable but not as effective as they think it is. Over the past few months, we have seen ministers attempt to deflect attention from the government’s handling of the pandemic by fighting with anti-racist activists over the statues, with student associations over their common rooms, and with the BBC about the lyrics of the Proms. In the recent Chesham and Amersham by-elections, this discouraged their own voters at heart. Batley and Spen shows another risk of this strategy: there are always extremists on hand who are ready to participate and wage an even more toxic and divisive campaign.

Jo Cox was a staunch activist against populist extremism; in his own words, “we are much more united and have much more in common than what divides us”. Five years after her murder, her sister’s victory in Batley and Spen is a reminder that the only way politicians will seek to win and rule is to unite the country around a common vision of who we are, rather than to ” pitting different groups of people against each other. One against the other.

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