Kim Leadbeater, sister of the murdered MP Jo Cox, will win the Batley and Spen by-election for Labour. That at least is the firm belief of a number of drinkers in The Union Rooms pub in Hick Lane, Batley.
For ConHome this was an unexpected message. We approached Batley by train from Leeds. The station before is Outwood, in the constituency of Outwood and Morley, where during the 2015 general election campaign we detected “a change in the political weather” in favour of the Conservatives, and Ed Balls, the Labour incumbent, was duly defeated by Andrea Jenkyns, by the slender margin of 422 votes. She now has a majority of 11,267.
The station after Batley is Dewsbury, a marginal seat captured for the Conservatives in 2019 by Mark Eastwood.
So there ought to be good chances of a Conservative victory in Batley and Spen, held for Labour in 2019 by Tracy Brabin by 3,525 votes. Only a fortnight ago, in the Hartlepool by-election, a Labour majority of 3,595 was demolished, and became a Conservative majority of 6,940.
At the top of Hick Lane, the visitor to Batley finds a tremendous stone Wesleyan Chapel, now used by Europabeds, whose slogan is “Sleep in Style, Wake in Comfort”.
On the opposite side of the road stands another splendid building, the words “West Riding Union Bank Limited 1877” carved in stone over the gothic porch, now in use as a Wetherspoon pub.
“I vote Labour,” said Mick Carter, a retired painter and decorator, who was having a drink in the garden at the back. “I can’t vote Conservative. They tell too many lies.
“I think they should do a comedy act, those two. Pinocchio and Coco the Clown. I wonder why they won’t answer a straight question.”
He meant Boris Johnson and Matt Hancock.
Carter was pleased recently to have received a letter, posted in Wakefield, from Sir Keir Starmer: “They must know I’m a Labour supporter.
“The only reason I was going to go off Labour was when Corbyn was in. I couldn’t stand that Corbyn. But when Starmer came in, he could stand up to Boris, couldn’t he.
“Boris could run rings round Corbyn. But Starmer, he can actually keep on top of him.
“Really by rights what he [Johnson] should have done is have a lockdown much earlier, I’d say February instead of March.
“Now he’s making more mistakes. He should have kept the border shut, it’s too late now, if this variant [from India] is out, it’s his fault.
“Before he came to Batley [the Prime Minister visited a vaccination centre there on 1st February] he says we can’t go anywhere. But he comes 400 miles with his entourage to Batley.
“But the day before he said you’ve got to stay at home. But they never tell lies. Bloody hell.
“And I’ll tell you another thing I couldn’t stand about the Conservatives. You know they’re that bad, they didn’t even treat the cancer patients.
“They treated them like garbage. ‘We’re too busy,’ they said.
“I’ll tell you someone who doesn’t like that Boris, he doesn’t even treat them right, the Scottish people.
“You know what he is. He’s a dictator. You do as I say. I’m in charge of the country. That’s what he tells them in Scotland. You know why? She’s a woman.
“Him in Manchester sticks up to him. And he’s Labour. You know that Andy Burnham, I think he’ll take over from Starmer. He seems OK that Burnham. He seems to know what he’s talking about.”
Does Carter expect Labour to hold Batley and Spen?
“I think they will. I think, is it Kim, she’ll take over. I think she will. I hope so.
“They murdered that other woman, that Jo, in Birstall. You can’t do stuff like that.”
Carter is 63, and works part-time as a gardener, having been forced to give up painting and decorating after falling down a flight of stairs.
“Do you know what he [Johnson] offered the NHS? One per cent.”
A second man: “It’s an insult.”
Carter: “Then he redecorates his flat. How much does it cost? £500,000. She wants gold doorknobs. That’s what it says in the paper the other day.
“I would have done the job for about four grand.”
The second man said: “It used to be a good place, Batley. Everything’s gone now. It used to be buzzing. We’ve had them all here, the top stars, at Batley Variety Club. Shirley Bassey, the Drifters, Tom Jones.
“They couldn’t get Elvis. They offered him £50,000 a night. Louis Armstrong, Neil Sedaka, Showaddywaddy, Gene Pitney.”
At a second table, a woman aged 25, who works as a retail assistant and was drinking a Sex on the Beach cocktail (vodka, peach schnapps, cranberry juice, orange juice), wanted to talk about Tracy Brabin, who has just stood down as MP for Batley and Spen after being elected Mayor of West Yorkshire:
“I can’t stand her. She cares more about how she looks than actually dealing with the issues we’ve got in the community.
“I do normally vote for Labour but since Tracy Brabin took over I haven’t bothered to vote any more.”
Would she vote for Kim Leadbeater?
“Most likely yeah. If she’s got the same views as her sister. She [Jo Cox] actually took an active role within her community.”
What does she think of Boris Johnson?
“He’s a buffoon. I can’t stand him. His priorities have been elsewhere. He cares more about how he looks [laughter].
“This whole pandemic, he could have done more, sooner, like New Zealand.
“My father passed away last year when it peaked, in April. My Dad, he barely went out. He went out to the hospital, we thought he had cancer, unfortunately he contracted coronavirus.
“He did have additional health problems. If only he [Johnson] had done it sooner like New Zealand. He’s a joke, he’s an embarrassment.
“This new type of the virus in India, why didn’t they close the borders?
“My Dad were only 60 when he passed away. Not being able to see him, to be around him, we didn’t even see him in the chapel of rest, apparently his body was contaminated, he was put in a plastic bag, which we didn’t need to know.
“It happened on day eight of the hospital admission. He left behind three children, five grandchildren, his wife.”
She reverted to Johnson: “In five to ten years we’ll be a military-led country. He’s a dictator. He is literally a clone of Donald Trump. He and Donald Trump are the same person.”
A man sitting next to her, pouring himself drinks from a jug of Godfather (whiskey, amaretto, Pepsi), said: “Everyone thinks that.”
The woman did a rather good imitation of Johnson: “I, I, I, I, I’ll be going down to get a drink myself.”
She went on: “I don’t like him but he makes me laugh.”
There was much laughter during these conversations. Nobody seemed to mind an ignorant southerner coming into a pub in West Yorkshire and asking people about their politics. A sort of friendly defiance of the Prime Minister prevailed.
At a third table, a man said: “Well I certainly wouldn’t vote Labour. I don’t think that Labour’s doing a good job.
“I used to vote Labour. I vote Conservative now, and I always will do now, I think. I think Boris has done a marvellous job, the way he’s handled the pandemic, the furlough.
“I work at Tesco. We’ve been very busy at Tesco. Never stopped.”
Another man, a retired dryliner and decorator aged 60, said of politicians generally: “They’re all the same. I’ve never voted in my life. I never will.”
But he said of Johnson: “I think he’s all right. I like him actually. His charisma, his hair style. For crying out loud, put some hair lacquer on.
“I have actually voted once, and that was Conservative, about 30 years ago. I did actually vote for Thatcher a few times.
“I know Thatcher caused a lot of shite, but she argued, ‘You get stuck into your work and that’s what you get paid for.’
“The unions were all going on strike for no toilet paper [a dispute at a local firm at the time].”
A third man: “Margaret Thatcher was bang on.”
The retired dryliner: “You worked for your money.”
The third man: “At the last election I voted for Paul Halloran. He’s helped a lot of people in the community, has Paul. There was a woman in a wheelchair, he helped her get access to her house, the council said it couldn’t be done.”
At the 2019 general election, Halloran stood for the Heavy Woollen District Independents, a local successor to UKIP, and as Paul Goodman last week noted on ConHome, came a strong third, with 6,432 votes.
Phil Taylor, 69, who did “lots of jobs mainly in the building trade”, said at once, when asked for his view: “Oh I’m going to vote for Jo Cox’s sister. Kim is it?
“I’ve seen her many times on telly. I think she’ll stand up for the area. Once she starts she’ll never shut up. She’s the fastest talker. She never comes up for air.
“If she’s got summat to get a point over she won’t half drill it home.
“Jo Cox came in here once, she were having her breakfast, she were a nice lass.
“It were the first time I seen her. She was sat in that room, having her breakfast. Tragic what happened to her. Coming up to her anniversary next month, 16th of June I think it were. Terrible.”
He is correct about the date.
“Mrs Peacock, she were the last Conservative, I remember her. I thought she was all right, to be honest. She spoke good. Elizabeth Peacock [who in 1983 won a narrow victory in the newly created seat of Batley and Spen, holding it by slender majorities until 1997] – they showed her on telly the other night.”
In the EU Referendum, Batley and Spen voted 60 per cent Leave. Taylor was one of those Leavers, and said Batley had deteriorated after Britain joined the Common Market:
“It used to be a lovely town this, at one time. Like everywhere in the country, shops and that started closing down. Batley had a massive Conservative Club, it were being demolished, they’re turning it all into flats.
“But I think it’s starting to pick up now. There’s more properties opening when you walk up town. There’s mainly Asian places and eatery places – Turkish and Indian and Chinese.”
At the centre of Batley, just along Commercial Street from the pub, lies the Market Place, which contains a number of handsome stone buildings, including the Zion Chapel of 1869, still in use as Batley Central Methodist Church; the Town Hall, formerly the Mechanics’ Institute and currently in use as a vaccination centre; the Carnegie Library, which opened in 1907; and the Police Station, which to the anger and regret of local residents closed in 2018.
We took a late lunch at SIBU, an Asian Soul Food restaurant which has just opened at the Market Place end of Commercial Street, almost next to Jo Cox House, a charitable venture set up in her memory.
Ismail Achhala, 21, who is studying International Relations at the University of Leeds, with other members of his family set up the restaurant.
He lives in Dewsbury, is a member of Dewsbury Conservative Association, has campaigned there for Mark Eastwood, and has “converted” his younger sister, who is studying dentistry, to the Conservative cause.
He explained that he had joined the party because of David Cameron: “Just the character he had, the policies.
“I could see a Prime Minister and I was proud of him. All I could see with the Labour Party was infighting.”
Achhala’s grandfather came to West Yorkshire from Gujarat in 1967, worked most of his life in a factory, and after ten years could afford to bring his grandmother over.
She is still alive, aged 94, and has 40 grandchildren, of whom the oldest is 43 and the youngest two. At elections she always tells her family to support Labour: “Vote the red box.”
“Thatcher was a villain in her eye,” Achhala said.
What did he think of Thatcher?
“She was much needed,” he replied.
He added that while Tony Blair was in power, there had been a “drainage of services” from the local area:
“Nobody wanted to come and live in Batley. Now there’s high demand. It’s very recent.”
But there is a crime problem: “It doesn’t feel as safe as it used to. They’ve put all the police in one place in Dewsbury – I don’t think that it’s a good idea.
“At night you’ve had stones thrown at the windows. Why should we have to put the shutters up? It spoils the look of the place.
“Before you’d see police patrols at night. Now you feel there’s no support.”
He mentioned the row at Batley Grammar School, where there were demonstrations after the showing of a cartoon of the Prophet Mohammed in a lesson. A teacher has been suspended and gone into hiding pending the outcome of an inquiry.
This bitter clash between free speech and respect for religious belief has had extensive coverage in the national press, but no one in the pub mentioned it.
“I don’t approve of threats of violence,” Akhhala said. “It’s a very tiny traditional community in Batley. You report it to the authorities and you leave it to them.
“I think that working with faith leaders there is a way of sorting these things out.”
It occurred to me that while in Batley, I had met a number of people from Labour backgrounds who now support the Conservatives, but no one who has made the opposite journey. Achhala remarked:
“The direction Boris is taking the party in is very different – he’s opening it up to more voters – the working class who are trusting in him.”
So does he think the Conservatives will win the by-election?
“It’s too tight,” he replied. “I think Labour have got the edge. We need someone to work for the party in Batley. You don’t feel like there’s anything going on.
“There’s a huge Asian working-class community in Batley. There’s also a massive middle-class Asian community that have moved up, but even they’re still Labour.”
With great pride, and infectious optimism, Akhhala showed ConHome the kitchen at SIBU, which has chefs from the Philippines, Malaysia, Nepal, India and Britain. This is globalisation the Batley way.
The Yorkshire Post reports that Labour will choose its candidate for Batley and Spen on Sunday. Councillor Ryan Stephenson, who represents Harewood ward in Leeds, was yesterday evening selected as the Conservative candidate.
Both parties have enough potential supporters to win this seat, if only they can persuade their people to turn out.