Who was the biggest loser in the UK's most recent by-election?

It wasn't one particular candidate but toxic politics that was deservedly beaten

Relief can be the only reaction following the defeat of toxic politics in the UK’s most recent by-election for the northern seat of Batley.

An epic struggle that contained heroes and villains brought to the streets the most painful strains of the country’s most recent political journey. The phone alert declaring that the Labour party had eked out a narrow victory in the overnight for the seat will certainly have been welcomed by the opposition leader, Kier Starmer.

That is only just one small sliver of the story, because so much can be pulled out of the behaviours and positioning of both agitators and mainstream political forces in the campaign. Batley was the seat of the murdered MP Jo Cox – and in the hero camp in this election was the Labour candidate Kim Leadbeater, Ms Cox’s sister.

The murder of Ms Cox in 2016 had shown how the demons were being released in British politics. The killer was a far-right sympathiser. But despite the clear nod to the unleashing of extremism that was attendant in the referendum on Brexit, the country voted to leave the EU just a week after her death.

Ms Leadbeater has spent the past five years working through the Jo Cox Foundation to try to address the damaging impact of increasingly divisive politics. In standing as a candidate, she got an object lesson in how powerful these forces are and how much rancour is coursing through the body politic.

On the day of the election, Ms Leadbeater showed her virtues as a candidate by issuing a video with her supporters marching to the voting station, urging everyone to get out and back her. She knew every vote would count as her tiny 300-vote majority on Friday morning demonstrated.

On the other side of the ledger was George Galloway, the candidate representing the Workers Party of Britain who set out to cost Ms Leadbeater victory.

One Twitter user asked on Friday morning what George "Oswald Mosley" Galloway would do now. Oswald Mosley was the father of the recently deceased Max Mosley, the former international motorsport federation chief, and a man who spent time in prison as a result of his leadership of the British Union of Fascists. Max Mosley reportedly felt his father should never have defected from the Labour party but, instead, fought inside until he emerged as its leader.

Mr Galloway is former Labourite, too, and there are few so antagonised as those who formerly belonged to the tribe.

Sectarian politics was everywhere in the Batley by-election, as Mr Galloway openly appealed to its Muslim communities to forsake their Labour traditions and back him. It is a move that has worked before, when he was MP for Bradford West, nearby to Batley, between 2012 and 2015. Trading on his radicalism and his long concentration on Middle East issues – remember his words in support of the former Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein – the Scotsman wanted to prove that his drawing power could bring down the centrist Mr Starmer.

Far and wide this influence was felt. One man from Birmingham, many kilometres away, came to Batley to confront Ms Leadbeater over the Labour party's “change in policy” on the Muslim-majority Indian territory of Kashmir, which was stripped of its autonomy in 2019. Stepping forward to take this man on was another of the heroes of the campaign. Naz Shah is currently the Labour MP for Bradford West, the former seat of Mr Galloway.

GRETNA GREEN, SCOTLAND - APRIL 20: George Galloway leader of the All For Unity Party campaigns during the Scottish Parliament election with a speech at the Gretna Gateway Outlet on April 20, 2021 in Gretna, Scotland. Mr Galloway visited Gretna with his wife Gayatri, where he gave a speech slamming First Minister Nicola Sturgeon's handling of the Coronavirus pandemic. (Photo by Jeff J Mitchell/Getty Images)
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Sectarian politics was everywhere in the Batley by-election

Ms Shah dedicated a huge amount of time for the Labour victory in Batley, working to counteract the slurs and disinformation surrounding Labour’s policy positions on Kashmir and Palestine. Looking to provide a real connection between the party’s campaign and local residents, she played a key role in moving beyond the posters and slogans shouted from open-top buses.

In a crucial intervention, a group of Muslim women issued a statement that called out "a loud minority" of men who were distorting the views of the community. “We cannot claim to be championing the cause of Palestine whilst ignoring the [Muslim practice] of peace and tolerance,” the WhatsApp messages said.

The mainstream was not absolved from the dirty tricks that plagued the campaign.

The Conservative party was hoping for another Red Wall-busting performance on the coattails of Mr Galloway’s campaign. It nearly succeeded: as Mr Galloway clinched 20 per cent of the vote, the Conservative candidate, Ryan Stephenson, claimed 34 per cent and was only narrowly beaten by Ms Leadbeater’s 35 per cent.

Mr Stephenson was youthful and clearly ambitious for the area; he talked of housing and education. But he also hoped that the strife between the parties on the left would deliver him the seat. "Divide and conquer" is rarely an openly discussed gambit for its beneficiaries.

Labour cannot get a free pass either. One of its leaflets had a picture of British Prime Minister and leader of the Conservative party, Boris Johnson, with his Indian counterpart, Narendra Modi. The message made a point about the UK government’s policy on Kashmir but it also had a place in the communal politics of the area.

Embracing communalism is undoubtedly a step back in British politics. It is toxic because it plays on the fractured identities of towns and heightens them. It also brings together some of the powerful strands from the political playbook that were brought to the fore during Brexit.

After Batley there should be hope that these political trends are simply moving in cycles – and that a strong local focus and vibrant political campaigning can overcome base but powerful rhetoric. That would make for a legacy that honoured Ms Cox’s contribution.

Updated: July 4th 2021, 11:19 AM
Damien McElroy

Damien McElroy

Damien is a  foreign correspondent who has covered politics and conflict across Europe, the Middle East, the US, Africa and Asia. Before joining The National in 2017, he worked for The Sunday Times and Telegraph titles as an editor and roving reporter. He started his career in China and has a degree in finance.