Perception is everything. By the time the result of the Batley and Spen by-election came in after dawn on the 2nd July, the articles had been written, the running order, and guests for the breakfast shows had been decided, and the opinion pieces for the weekend papers had already been drafted.
Which just goes to show that overnight is a long time in politics.
Batley and Spen was never going to be a re-run of Hartlepool. The constituency is one spanning a clutch of towns and villages on the Yorkshire side of the mid-Pennine belt between Leeds and Manchester. Anyone who has ever taken the scenic rail route linking Yorkshire and Lancashire, essentially Scarborough to Blackpool, can see the ways in which prosperity is generated by cities on the up, which seeps out to the hinterland, as commuters move out to find bigger homes, or prettier landscapes, within reach of a railway link or the M62. It’s a complicated part of the country, long hindered by the inadequate transport infrastructure, but not at all stifled by it. The insularity of old mill towns is being diluted by new blood.
The Batley and Spen constituency turned Tory with Thatcher, and Labour with Blair. But it’s no political weathervane. That it didn’t turn Tory in Johnson’s 2019 landslide is significant as an indicator of the salience of local factors, or rather the ways in which disaffection with the major parties can be expressed in idiosyncratic ways. Who had heard of the Yorkshire Heavy Woollen District Independents before the by-election? Only the 12% of the local electorate who voted for them at the last general election, not to mention the other 88% who presumably got a leaflet through the door.
For the truth is that over-centralised parties, and a London-centric media are often not very good at seeing things through local eyes. Assumptions are made, stereotypes mobilised. ‘The white working class’, no longer with flat caps and whippets, but Brexity types with St George flags and white vans, are pitted against ‘scary Muslims’ with beards who vote as a bloc just as the ‘community leaders’ or ‘elders’ tell them. Neither stereotype is much help at understanding the complexities of a real place undergoing the profound change that we are all experiencing now.
This was meant to be a by-election gift to Boris Johnson. The ‘white working class’ allied to the grateful vaccinated folk (also implicitly white) were to rally to the Tories, and Labour’s bedrock ‘ethnic minorities’ were supposed to break for George Galloway and his embrace of Hamas over Heckmondwike, thereby sending Keir Starmer and Labour into dark perdition. How could it be otherwise?
That didn’t happen, to the astonishment of the media, and, let’s face it, the rest of us. What was happening, that those people in the constituency as our eyes and ears, didn’t see?
Enter the women who grasped the nettle, who made a victory happen where none was predicted. Kim Leadbeater herself, obviously. But less acknowledged has been the role of Shabana Mahmood and Naz Shah. Shabana Mahmood was recently installed as Labour’s National Campaign Coordinator, and might well be the most important figure in the party right now.
For this is where the old, failing politics fell prey to the new. Starmer has not been an MP for very long. Siren voices sought him out, Alastair Campbell, Peter Mandelson, the brains and enforcers of New Labour’s victories were assuring him that they knew the secret of electoral success. And they did, perhaps, in 1997. But that’s a long time ago, before most people had a smartphone, or a home computer, and a time when Rupert Murdoch could be a kingmaker. A time when the stereotypes of class and race, gender too, had larger traces of truth to them. Shabana Mahmood represents a new perspective, just as sharp, disciplined and professional as any 1990s suit, but radically different, attuned to things as they are now, not as they were once.
The team in Batley and Spen was thus very different from the ill-fated campaigners of Hartlepool. Kim Leadbeater knows the terrain. The only candidate on the ballot who could vote for herself (as she alone is on the local electoral register), she can, with her own life, map the subtleties of each town, each ward.
Shabana Mahmood is the brilliant organising mind. She galvanised the operation, pumping MPs and activists into the constituency and phonebanks into the backup.
And Naz Shah, the woman with experience of taking on Galloway and winning, was sent to take up residence in her neighbouring constituency. Those WhatsApp groups of Muslim women who took on Galloway’s goons? I doubt that Naz, a woman who has seen oppression up close and very personal, was far from that initiative. Connecting with women voters to take down Galloway’s misogyny, and to assert women’s own political agency.
Labour’s leadership deserves some respect for realising that Batley and Spen was lost without something bold. Questions at PMQs about Palestine had looked crudely opportunistic. The leaflet about Modi and Johnson has been condemned by hypocritical Tories who have been dog whistling ever since PM David Cameron shared a platform at a BJP rally in Wembley. So it’s not fair? This has never been a level playing field. They needed to do what Ed Miliband in his new role as sage has said – Go Big.
Shabana Mahmood, Naz Shah, Kim Leadbeater played a blinder.
But they couldn’t have done it without Galloway.
Galloway’s candidature compelled Starmer to confront his ignorance. To make crystal clear that the ‘advice’ of Mandelson and others is, in 2021, irrelevant. To accept that each constituency is an island to itself. To hand over control to those who were fit to do the job. That’s a lesson that can’t be purchased from a communications agency.
And so the new team forced Galloway and his macho men to slink away as bad losers. For Galloway that doesn’t matter. He pitches his tent, then moves on leaving not a trace. But his local army? They’ve been beaten back by the women with their WhatsApp letters, locally challenging, and defeating, the patriarchs of old.
That’s the delicious irony – Galloway inadvertently won it for Labour.
The lesson is that any party, even Johnson’s Tories rampant, can be defeated by hard campaigning on the ground led by those who understand the terrain, and the latent, or evident, fissures in a complex electorate. Labour looks, finally, to be building an operation that understands that truth.