It has been a testing few weeks for Kim Leadbeater, the Labour candidate in Batley and Spen, and her campaign team is looking for some light relief.
Leadbeater is the sister of the area’s former MP Jo Cox who was murdered in the constituency by a rightwing extremist in 2016, a few days before the EU referendum. Now she is trying to carry on the work that Cox had only just begun by retaining the seat for Labour in Thursday’s byelection.
Although she is from the area and is popular, there are security concerns. Over previous days she has been the object of unpleasant criticism of her party’s approach to Palestine, Kashmir and gay rights by supporters of George Galloway, representing the Workers Party of Britain, and on a range of issues from other candidates from the right and left who are seeking election. Some of the online abuse has been vile and shocking.
So Team Leadbeater heads to Angloco, a company that makes fire engines and fire safety equipment. From its depot there are lovely hillside views of old former woollen mills across this part of mainly Labour West Yorkshire. The shadow chancellor Rachel Reeves, who was a close friend of Cox and is the MP for Leeds West, has come to lend a hand.
Campaign posters on the streets in the Batley and Spen byelection. Photograph: Gary Calton/The Observer
Cox had been at the same depot on the morning of 16 June 2016, the day she was killed, though no one involved in the visit last week mentions that or even seems aware. The photo op will be of Reeves and Leadbeater driving one of the engines. It is all laughter as Reeves struggles to get the vehicle started (“a lot of things to work through” she says afterwards) and Leadbeater shouts something about the fire being out by the time they get moving. The short journey completed, Leadbeater then accidentally sprays some photographers with a power hose. “Oh no, this was such a bad idea!” says a party worker.
In the context of a campaign marred by unpleasantness it is a welcome interlude in a gruelling battle for votes. For Labour, retaining this seat is vital. Keir Starmer’s party lost Hartlepool last month and cannot afford to cede a second northern seat to the Tories.
In Chesham and Amersham Labour polled just 622 votes 10 days ago coming fourth as the Lib Dems dumped out the Tories. Leadbeater is defending a 3,525 majority over the second-placed Tories in this contest caused by the resignation of Labour MP Tracy Brabin, who was elected as the first mayor for West Yorkshire last month. Some Labour figures talk of big trouble for Starmer if his party suffers yet more humiliation here.
After her fire engine experience, Leadbeater regains focus and says she is concentrating on local issues – antisocial behaviour, crime, the state of the roads and protecting green spaces, and that her campaign is going well. But she cannot hide her disgust at those who have chosen her late sister’s old seat, of all places, to sow more division, particularly among people of Asian heritage, who make up 20% of the electorate. On Friday Leadbeater was chased and heckled on the campaign trail by men who were not from the area who demanded to know her views about LGBT rights and Kashmir. Galloway denied they were his supporters. The scenes were described as disgraceful by Starmer.
Leadbeater told the Observer: “I think sadly that from the 16 candidates that have put themselves forward there are a number who are going to come to Batley and Spen to try to create division and it breaks my heart to think that people here, who have been through so much in the last five years in terms of politics, should be subjected to more chaos. The good people who live here want to get on and live their lives peacefully, in the way that everyone else does. We don’t need people coming here and causing trouble.”
George Galloway posters outside his campaign headquarters in Batley. Photograph: Gary Calton/The Observer
The Tory candidate Ryan Stephenson, who is from North Yorkshire, is difficult to find and Lib Dems are not exactly visible either, not regarding the seat as a priority. Labour says the Tories are just keeping a low profile hoping that Galloway and others capable of stirring resentments will take enough votes from Labour to allow them in.
By contrast Galloway and his people are everywhere, his battlebus with megaphone racing around the town as the old warrior of the anti-imperialist left makes yet another bid for elected office. After doing a long photoshoot for the Daily Mail in a fedora hat outside the former police station (now closed) Galloway is very available to talk.
His lines are slick, well prepared and some are full of menace. He tells the Observer he put ￡100 on himself to win a few weeks ago when the odds were 166-1 (now 16-1) and told his wife to lock the betting slip up in their safe “because it is the most valuable thing we have got”.
Pointing at the closed police HQ he blames the Labour council as he, while originally from Dundee, claims to be mainly concerned with local causes. “What a place to sell off a police station where an MP was murdered, where there is a spike in violent and sexual crimes and Labour closed it and sold it to a property developer,” he says. He fails to mention that Kirklees council has had its budget cut by 40% since 2010 by the Conservative government.
Asked why local people would want an outsider like him he instantly names “Marcelo Bielsa” the Argentinian manager of nearby Leeds United who has revived the fortunes of the club. “If you need a lawyer, you won’t go for the local lawyer, ditto if you are having an operation you want the best surgeon not the one who lives round the corner.” On the Palestine issue he says “Labour’s perceived abandonment of the rightness of the Palestinian cause is a major vote loser for them” in places such as Batley and Spen.
The Batley and Spen byelection will reveal the depth of Labour’s predicament | Jane Green
Galloway makes no secret of the fact that he, like many on the left, want to use the byelection to get rid of Starmer. He even predicts the Labour leader could be gone by next weekend. “The country needs an opposition, we don’t have one, we have a poor excuse for a leader of the opposition, he is losing ground, his personal ratings are sinking like a stone. The ground is moving underneath him.”
As for Leadbeater he is as dismissive as he can be in the circumstances. “I have not engaged with her in the campaign. I think it was a pretty cynical move by Labour [to select her] and I think it has probably backfired. And I feel a bit sorry for her.”
In Birstall, Alison Guest, left, and Polly Morris were full of praise for the Labour candidate, Kim Leadbeater. Photograph: Gary Calton/The Observer
Not all Muslim voters by any means are going for Galloway. A young man on his way to the gym says he and his friends are not taken in. “He is just trying to use us to get elected. We can see through it. He is not from here.” Another young Muslim businessman says his friends from Bradford, where Galloway was an MP from 2012 to 2015, have told him he was no good as their MP. “We know what he is doing trying to divide people,” he said. “We should all live together, whatever our colour or religion.”
A few miles away in the village of Birstall, two women, out with their children, were sitting and talking yards away from where Cox was shot and stabbed. They had heard that Galloway would be in town this weekend but knew little about him. But they were very aware of the Labour candidate and were full of praise. One of them, Polly Morris, a careers adviser, said she would be voting for Leadbeater for sure: “We need to bring this area together. It has been in the news for all the wrong reasons. I admire her. I think she is brave. What happened to her sister was a terrible tragedy but why not try to bring something positive out of it? That is what we need round here.”