EVEN for a business as vicious and duplicitous as politics, Batley and Spen has cut up rough.
Tomorrow’s by-election fight for this West Yorkshire town of old cotton mills and rugby league has been tarnished by dirty tricks, alleged “dog whistle racism” and even physical violence.
If there is one seat in the country that deserves a respectfully conducted election, it’s Batley.
For it was here that Labour MP Jo Cox — respected by people of all political persuasions — was murdered in 2016 by a far-right fanatic.
When Jo’s sister Kim Leadbeater — a political greenhorn who lives locally — stepped forward to defend Labour’s 3,525 majority, many expected her to succeed.
Then George Galloway — dressed in a black fedora and dark suit like a pound shop Lee Van Cleef from the Good, The Bad And The Ugly — rode into town.
If polls and pundits are to be believed, Galloway has thrown the cat among the pigeons by likely splitting the Labour vote with his appeals to the seat’s large Muslim community.
And the beneficiary is tipped to be Conservative candidate Ryan Stephenson — if the Matt Hancock “hands, face, a**e” memes haven’t scuppered his chances.
The battle for the seat has been the most rancorous in recent history.
On Friday Leadbeater was chased and heckled on the campaign trail, by men who were not from the area, demanding to know her views about LGBT rights and Kashmir. Galloway denied they were his supporters.
A Labour insider told me yesterday: “It’s utterly toxic. It’s so sad. But Kim is a tough cookie and hasn’t been intimidated.” At the weekend Labour activists were attacked in the street.
Former Coronation Street actress Tracy Brabin, who stood down as MP when she campaigned successfully to become the first Mayor of West Yorkshire last month, said: “The group I was with included young people and the elderly.
“I witnessed them being egged, pushed and forced to the ground and kicked in the head.”
Police are investigating. With 16 candidates standing — including the far right — it is unclear which party, if any, was responsible.
Labour candidate Leadbeater said: “What upsets me is there’s going to be a number of people who’ll come in here with their own agendas, trying to cause upset.”
She claimed the town is “being used as a political football, and that breaks my heart”.
Fake leaflets were pushed through letterboxes showing Sir Keir Starmer taking the knee and claiming Labour aims to tackle “whiteness”.
All this in a constituency that has become a focus in Britain’s culture war.
For it is here that a teacher at Batley Grammar School showed his pupils a cartoon of the Prophet Mohammed while teaching blasphemy.
He was suspended amid claims he caused deliberate offence as parents and locals protested outside the school.
The teacher was cleared but he has fled his small, terraced flat and hasn’t returned to his job.
Alighting at Batley railway station yesterday I walked into the town centre.
For sale and to let signs dotted around suggest a town struggling through the pandemic.
By-elections often are won or lost on matters as mundane as potholes, fly-tipping and dog mess. Or voters are content to give the party in power in
Westminster a bloody nose to remind them not to get too complacent.
Galloway — touring in an open-topped bus and armed with a megaphone — has seemed at times to be campaigning to win Gaza Central as much as this Yorkshire constituency.
He has tried to win the votes of Muslims, who make up 20 per cent of the electorate here, by referencing the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
Galloway said recently: “There are 25,000 Asian Muslim voters in Batley and Spen and they are boiling with rage at the massacre of women and children in Gaza and the threat to Al-Aqsa mosque in Jerusalem.” And it appears to be working.
Mail sorter Sahoeb Bhoola, 61, told me: “For me, the big issue is Palestine.
That’s why I’m voting Galloway.” Strolling past a giant poster of Galloway adopting a boxing pose — captioned “Starmer out” — Sahoeb added: “I’m also worried about potholes. The roads here are terrible.”
Dressed in black niqab, a 28-year-old mum-of-three who didn’t want to be named said: “We need to support people who are pro-Palestinian.”
Again, she referenced potholes as being an issue in the town.
Takeaway chef Umar Farooq, 50, said: “I’ve been a Labour supporter all my life and I’m voting George Galloway. I think he’ll do what he promises. I’d never vote Tory.”
Kim Leadbeater — and by extension the Labour leader — are in trouble here. That may explain why Labour have stoked the flames of international tension too.
A Labour leaflet emerged this week criticising Boris Johnson shaking hands with Hindi nationalist Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi.
It said the Prime Minister is “silent on human rights abuses in Kashmir”, adding: “Don’t risk a Tory MP who is not on your side.”
Stockport’s Labour MP Navendu Mishra slammed the leaflet, adding: “We beat our opponents based on policies, not by dog-whistle racism.”
After I collared Galloway in Batley’s Memorial Park, he told me: “We’ve got them all quaking because People hate Labour and the Conservatives. They want a change.”
You may remember Galloway as the purring pussy on Celebrity Big Brother in 2006.
NEVER HEARD OF STARMER
It is difficult to forget Rula Lenska feeding the political firebrand a glass of milk and telling him: “You’ve got cream all over your whiskers.”
The former Labour MP now represents the Workers Party of Britain, which was founded in 2019 with a promise to “defend the achievements of the USSR, China, Cuba etc” and is “committed to class politics”.
Yesterday he insisted the dirty tricks were nothing to do with him, adding: “We are actually the victims, not the perpetrators. The leaflets are nothing to do with us.”
On Palestine, he said: “People asked me to stand here because they are concerned about that issue.
“But the main issue is 100 yards from here, the closed police station. It affects all the communities.”
A recent Survation poll has shown the Tories on 47 per cent, Labour on 41 per cent and former MP George Galloway on six per cent.
Young voter Therese Munene, 21, a supervisor at a casino in the town centre, will vote Conservative, admitting she had never even heard of Labour leader Sir Keir.
She said: “I don’t know what Labour stand for.”
Wearing an England cap, Huddersfield Town fan Michael Clarke, 53, who makes pattern books, said: “The Tories have got jabs into arms. They’ve got my vote.”
Paul Hallas, a 64-year-old retired worker from the Fox’s biscuit factory, said: “Boris is a buffoon but he’s got the vaccines out.”
Yet the Tories may find some pushback after the Matt Hancock fiasco.
Lecturer Lisa Dawkins, 50, told me: “Hancock upset a lot of people. It was one rule for him and another for everyone else. So I’m swinging towards Kim Leadbeater. Her sister was a good local MP.”
A 27-year-old local says he is voting Labour because of Jo Cox being a good constituency MP and the Hancock affair. Tory candidate Ryan Stephenson is a blue wall Tory by numbers.
A Brexiteer local councillor, he was born in the West Yorkshire pit village of Kippax and is the grandson of a brush maker.
He said: “I was one of the few Tories in my local comprehensive. A lot more now have seen the light.”
He fends off the Hancock scandal, saying that on the doorstep “few people asked questions on Saturday but by Sunday we had a new Health Secretary in place.”
Stevenson added: “What people have been saying is how successful the vaccine rollout has been.”
Much has been made of Galloway scuppering Labour, yet this seat was Tory in 1997.
And the nation still votes through the prism of Brexit. In Batley and Spen, 60 per cent voted for Leave.
Batley is the birthplace of Addicted To Love hitmaker Robert Palmer — there has been precious little of that among political opponents.
A town where potholes and Palestine dominate may yet decide who represents them in Parliament.