Labour’s candidate in Batley and Spen, Kim Leadbeater, reportedly pulled out of a hustings featuring George Galloway over the weekend. This makes sense. Not only is Galloway a master of bluster whose pompous bombast has a steamroller quality in a debate, but Leadbeater would have been debating the person of whom she is currently doing a dubious impression. If the organisers were concerned about getting Labour’s perspective, they could have stuck a mirror in front of Galloway and given it equal time.
The no-show came as Leadbeater, whose sister Jo Cox was murdered by a right-wing extremist five years ago, told the Independent:
I think sadly there are a number of people who are going to come here and try and sow division and cause problems for our community, and actually this area needs an MP who can bring people together. And on the back of the work I’ve done over the last few years, I think I’m that person. We need to build bridges, not cause division.
Hardly subtle, yet during this campaign it is Leadbeater who has posed with pro-Palestinian activists wearing T-shirts depicting Israel, the West Bank and Gaza as Palestine. Leadbeater who produced a leaflet denouncing ‘the illegal occupation’, characterising Israeli police efforts to control rioting on Jerusalem’s Temple Mount as ‘attacks on protestors and worshippers in the Holy Al-Aqsa mosque’, calling Israel’s limited and targeted air strikes in response to Hamas rocketing ‘unacceptable’, and pledging to be ‘your strong national voice on Palestine in parliament, to government and within the Labour party’. Leadbeater also sent a letter to voters vowing to be ‘a strong voice for Palestinian human rights and statehood’, condemning ‘the violence perpetrated by Israeli security forces at the Al-Aqsa site’, this time rebuking Israel’s riot-policing tactics as not only ‘unacceptable’, but ‘outrageous’.
Sir Keir Starmer is reportedly trying to distance himself from the campaign, yet he has already dabbled in a spot of this sectional button-pushing, demanding Boris Johnson use the G7 to convince world leaders to recognise a Palestinian state — i.e. before said state reaches an agreement for peaceful co-existence with Israel. This cynical communalism not only divides up the country into competing religious groups (or worse), it gives licence to others to think and speak in such terms.
Dan Hodges quotes a senior Labour official characterising the party’s problems in the constituency thus: ‘We’re haemorrhaging votes among Muslim voters and the reason for that is what Keir has been doing on anti-Semitism. Nobody really wants to talk about it, but that’s the main factor. He challenged Corbyn on it, and there’s been a backlash among certain sections of the community.’
We have no way of knowing how the official came to that conclusion, what evidence he or she has for it, and how well-placed he or she is to pronounce on the matter.
What we do know is that Labour has run a communalist campaign in this by-election, attempting to drive Muslim voters to the polls along sectarian lines. I wrote last week about how this reflects Labour’s narrow, prejudiced view of British Muslims as a homogenous voting bloc more interested in goings on in Birzeit than Birstall. It also turns just and reasonable policies (support for Palestinian statehood, concern for the humanitarian situation in Gaza, a desire to see an end to violence) into harshly drawn dividing lines — within the Labour party as much as between Labour and the government. I would add that activists and commentators vocal when Labour was on the receiving end of this type of politics in previous elections have gone awfully quiet of late.
Voters in Batley and Spen go to the polls on 1 July. There is now no possibility of a good outcome for Labour. If the party wins, the lesson it will learn is that communalism works; if it loses, that it wasn’t communalist enough.
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