What should we make of the Batley and Spen by-election, won by Labour with a majority of just 323 votes? The victory, slim though it may be, is a credit to Kim Leadbeater who – with a gutsy campaign – has proved her doubters wrong and done her sister, the late Jo Cox, proud.
This was by no means an easy campaign to fight. During the most toxic by-election for many years, Leadbeater became a target for two hostile and overlapping groups: aggressive self-proclaimed Muslim ‘leaders’, who with George Galloway tried to prise the constituency’s large Muslim population away from Labour, and the far-left in the party, who tried to use the by-election to breathe life back into Corbynism.
Galloway did win some support in the end – 8,264 votes is not nothing. But his boast that Labour would be pushed into third place, and that he would eat his hat if that didn’t happen, means he looks daft now.
Overall, Batley and Spen’s voters said a firm ‘no’ to divisive identity politics. What, may I ask, was Labour thinking with a campaign leaflet that showed Boris with the Prime Minister of India, Narendra Modi, which suggested that only Labour could protect Kashmiri human rights?
As a Labour MP and a proud Kashmiri myself, I was sorry to see my party getting tangled up in such naked sectarianism. On principle, the Labour party should stand up for minorities all over the world – and against all injustice, wherever and however it emerges. But this result should serve as a warning to Labour: if you buy into narrow identity politics and sectarianism, and try to blackmail the voters, they will see through it, whether they are Muslim, Hindu, Sikh or white British.
In my experience, Muslim voters are far more interested in the right education policy for their children, health policy for themselves and economic policy for their families and wider community than such arguments, whether about Kashmir or Israel and Palestine. Like other voters, they are focused on the everyday issues – getting face-to-face GP appointments, and stopping people breaking the speed limit or causing noise on their streets, for example – than they are in foreign policy arguments designed to stoke communal tensions. This was Jo Cox’s insight, and one shared by her sister – there is far more that unites us than divides us.
The by-election result offers proof that self-proclaimed Muslim leaders who act as the spokesmen for the Muslim community represent no one other than themselves. They are self-appointed ‘gatekeepers’ and nothing more. In particular, I suspect that Muslim women voters would have been put off by the viral video footage of loudmouthed Islamist campaigners confronting Kim Leadbeater in the street. If you bring a megaphone to a face-to-face conversation, you have already lost the argument.
We should be mindful of that shameful episode, too, when campaigners from outside the area turned up at the school gates to harass teaching staff, as they have recently in Batley. These people are hotheads, and do not speak for other Muslims. Indeed, I recognised one of them in the video with Kim Leadbeater from my own political encounters in Birmingham. It is not worth engaging with these people, as I hope the new Prevent review by William Shawcross will confirm. When they behave as if Muslim votes can be traded in giant blocs, they are plain wrong.
Labour, however, should not get lost in self-congratulation today. A majority of 323 is hardly a resounding victory and, as has been pointed out by analysts, this was one of the biggest swings towards a governing party for many years. There is still something going badly wrong in how Labour is connecting with its traditional supporters.
As things stand, I think of the electorate as divided into those who have been able to work from home during the pandemic – usually university graduates in professional jobs, such as lawyers and accountants – and those who have had to get up and leave the house, whether to work in the factory, warehouse, building site or as drivers. Put simply, the modern Labour party is trying too much to be the party of what I would call the ‘working from home classes’, instead of the ‘going to work classes’. That ties in with a real sense that Labour is more interested, for example, in the intricacies of human rights law than whether there are enough community police on the beat.
The Labour party needs to reconnect with these people if it is to remain relevant. Hysterical over-concentration on the issues that are not relevant to people’s everyday lives is not the way to go about it, as Batley and Spen shows. My party, and its leadership, must stick to the bread and butter issues that our voters think about when they enter the polling booth. At every step, we must reject the fool’s gold of identity politics.
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Khalid Mahmood is a Senior Fellow at Policy Exchange