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ROBERT HARDMAN: The poisoned poll

The poisoned poll: Jo Cox’s murder was a political tragedy. But five years later, a by-election in her seat (contested by her sister) has been tainted by racism, assaults and sickening dog-whistle tactics, writes ROBERT HARDMAN

Perhaps it is just as well that July 1 is the last time Batley and Spen will vote on anything.

A constituency that gained tragic notoriety for the murder of its popular local MP on a street in broad daylight five years ago is now infamous for one of the nastiest British by-elections in a very long time.

Thanks to the Boundary Commission, it will not exist at the next election. The political map is being redrawn in these parts and different bits of the seat will be hived off elsewhere.

Right now, however, the battle to be the last MP for Batley and Spen is growing more unpleasant by the day.

There have been assaults, eggs, poster thefts, made-up dodgy leaflets, bona fide dodgy leaflets and much else.

There is so much muck being raked hereabouts that no one even mentions Matt Hancock’s wandering hand when you talk to voters on the doorsteps. ‘So what?’ they say with very Yorkshire disdain.

Batley and Spen, the constituency that gained tragic notoriety for the murder of its popular local MP on a street in broad daylight five years ago, is now infamous for one of the nastiest British by-elections in a very long time. Pictured: Late MP Jo Cox (right) with sister and candidate Kim Leadbeater

Who’s interested in a spot of Whitehall hanky-panky when you have got one of Britain’s toughest political mavericks, George Galloway, charging round town on an open-top bus bellowing that the Prime Minister and the Labour leader are ‘two cheeks of the same backside’.

Chuck in the sister of the murdered ex-MP and a huge ballot paper – Ukip is back in the ring here, along with the Social Democratic Party (SDP), the anti-vaxxers and a dozen others – and you have got the makings of a vintage scrap. Except that it has all turned very nasty indeed. The cops have been busy.

On Sunday afternoon, there were reports of Labour canvassers being ‘egged’ and beaten in Batley.

Yesterday, West Yorkshire Police announced one arrest and issued a photo of another man they want to talk to.

Rival tickets are busily reporting each other to the authorities for pulling down posters. Mysterious leaflets are circulating, professing to be from Labour, showing the party’s leader Sir Keir Starmer taking the knee.

Who’s interested in a spot of Whitehall hanky-panky when you have got one of Britain’s toughest political mavericks, George Galloway (pictured with wife Putri Pertiw), charging round town on an open-top bus

The image is real enough but the leaflets are nothing to do with Labour and clearly calculated to annoy Brexity white working class voters.

George Galloway complains he is the subject of fake leaflets showing him holding a baby and a machine gun.

The Tories are furious about a leaflet showing the Prime Minister shaking hands with the Indian prime minister, Narendra Modi, whose policies on inter-racial marriage and Kashmir make him a hate-figure with many Muslims.

The leaflets are aimed at Batley’s 20,000 Muslims. They turn out to be genuine Labour literature. Dog-whistle racism, say the Tories.

Yesterday morning, I saw the bizarre sight of a police patrol outside a school drop-off, except that the school in question is Batley Grammar.

Right now, the battle to be the last MP for Batley and Spen is growing more unpleasant by the day. There have been assaults, eggs, poster thefts, made-up dodgy leaflets, bona fide dodgy leaflets and much else

Back in March, a teacher who showed a class a cartoon of the Prophet Mohammed during a religious studies discussion was suspended and taken into police protection. He has since been cleared of doing anything wrong but is too afraid to return to work.

It is one of the many polarising issues in a contest which was caused by sitting Labour MP, Tracy Brabin, choosing to become Mayor of West Yorkshire, thus creating a vacancy.

This used to be a comfortable Labour seat. But it sits in the North and we have seen how the map has changed since both Brexit and Boris Johnson. So might this be another Hartlepool?

It’s only a matter of weeks since that erstwhile Labour citadel fell to the Tories.

Batley and Spen is many miles from Hartlepool in umpteen ways but we can see the direction of traffic.

And the Tories came within 3,500 votes last time. Hence the sight of the PM here again this week.

What makes it unusual is that Labour have chosen as their candidate the sister of Jo Cox, the MP who was murdered here by a far-Right maniac in 2016. Kim Leadbeater has no previous political experience.

The Labour Party lashed out over a fake leaflet proporting to have been released by the TUC highlighting party leader Keir Starmer’s support for Black Lives Matter in a bid to hit his popularity among working class white voters

However, the fitness instructor is locally born and bred and commands an obvious sympathy vote.

Video footage of her being abused by a hysterical man shouting about gay rights and Kashmir has underlined the tenor of public discourse in these parts.

The Tories, in turn, have chosen a councillor from Leeds whom they protect as carefully as a Faberge egg. 

Ryan Stephenson is let out very occasionally on the basis that the best campaign for the Tories is to let Labour implode. But what has completely transformed this race is George Galloway.

The one-time Labour firebrand makes no bones about the fact that this is personal. It’s just that the person he has in mind isn’t actually standing. ‘I have no quarrel with Kim Leadbeater. I feel sorry for her,’ says a man hoping to win his fourth constituency.

‘My fight is with Keir Starmer, a desiccated, robotic creature. Labour is going to come a very poor third in this by-election.’

Mr Galloway parted company with Labour years ago and now represents the Workers Party of Britain.

Though he liked Jeremy Corbyn, his central gripe is that modern Labour has parted company with its old base.

‘The white working class viscerally hate the university-educated, Guardian-reading, virtue-signalling classes who regard them as deplorables, as flag-waving racists,’ he says.

But he deplores all the violence and threats here, pointing to his hat. ‘I wear this because I still have the scars from a very nasty attack in 2014 when I was hospitalised.

People sneered at the time but that was a step down the staircase that led to the murder of Jo Cox.’

What makes him so dangerous for the incumbent Labour machine here is that he not only presses a lot of old white working class buttons – he is passionate about Brexit, devoted to the Union and hates all things ‘woke’ – but he also has a strong Muslim following.

His years of campaigning on issues like Kashmir have made him popular among the 20,000 Muslims who make up a fifth of the constituency.

Newly elected West Yorkshire Mayor Tracy Brabin (pictured centre with fellow campaigners while out canvassing) said Labour activists were verbally and physically assaulted on the trail

Previously regarded as safe Labour voters, they are being lured away. Labour activists admit that this could split their vote and let the Tories in through the middle.

Certainly, Mr Galloway gets a lot of Asian horn-honking in Batley. ‘See – I have the Aston Martin-driving vote,’ he says as a posh car sails by.

The Labour candidate declines to talk to the Mail – ‘too busy’ I am told at Labour HQ – though I find plenty of people who speak well of her. It is interesting that her posters play down her party completely.

Some say simply: ‘Vote Local. Vote Kim.’ Others imply that she doesn’t think much of the outgoing Labour MP: ‘Vote Kim. Time For A Winner!’

You have to look very carefully to see the words ‘Labour’ in the non-Labour pink colour scheme.

‘I find it just extraordinary that they are pivoting away from their own party at this stage,’ says Tory Party co-chairman, Amanda Milling, who is helping oversee the campaign.

She points out that the demographics are very different out in the leafier villages of the Spen Valley where the Tories are stronger.

‘Our issue is getting our voters out, not changing anyone’s mind,’ says a Tory strategist.

It explains why it is so hard to track down Ryan Stephenson, the Tory candidate. Eventually, I am granted a few minutes with him. He says all the usual things about wanting to focus on local issues. ‘People just want to talk about jobs and investment,’ he says.

What is more interesting is that he grew up in a Yorkshire pit village, Kippax, in the wake of the miners’ strike. ‘I was just about the only Tory at my comprehensive school,’ he admits.

After their triumph in Chesham and Amersham earlier this month, we might expect to see more of the Liberal Democrats.

Their candidate, Wakefield councillor Tom Gordon, is out and about but he has none of the orange army which stormed Amersham. As they squeezed the Labour vote down to a husk there, so the Lib Dems may get similar treatment here tomorrow.

The omens? I talk to plenty of former Labour voters who will be voting Tory or Galloway.

In the centre of Batley, I meet kitchen-maker Peter Richards, now entering a second year of furlough but disillusioned with Labour.

‘I used to be Labour through and through but they take us for granted,’ he says.

His wife Linda agrees, and granddaughter Abby. Aged 19 and on her way to university, she will be voting Tory, too.

‘Labour has become a party of virtue-signalling middle class people who might take the knee but they don’t do anything for working people,’ she says.

In Heckmondwike, though, I find plenty of support for Kim Leadbeater. Deborah, who runs a recycling business, tells me she usually votes Tory but is switching to Labour to ‘stop the far-Right who have taken over the party’.

Retired teacher Barbara Aveyard and her husband Paul both like Kim’s local credentials, much admired her late sister and will be voting accordingly tomorrow.

And Tory sleaze? Labour councillor Habiban Zaman tells me that it is really down to local issues on the ground.

Back on the road, George Galloway is in volcanic form, berating a BBC interviewer on live television for ‘your party political attack on behalf of the Labour Party’ and shrugging off a leaflet in which he grandly describes himself as ‘the Honourable George Galloway’.

‘That’s because I am actually a knight in Pakistan,’ he insists.

As he hops back on his bus to watch the football at a local Irish centre, he shouts: ‘Did you hear the one about the Scotsman cheering for England at the Irish club?’

In the eyes of many, this entire by-election has been a bad joke. Whatever tomorrow night’s punchline, don’t expect many laughs.

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