The Batley and Spen By-Election Showed Britain’s Political Class Holds Muslims In Contempt

Keir Starmer’s Labour Party narrowly avoided a second successive by-election defeat to the Tories yesterday. But the most important story of the campaign was the alienation of British Muslims from a political mainstream that openly despises them.

Keir Starmer and Labour candidate Kim Leadbeater following Labour's victory in the Batley and Spen by-election, in Cleckheaton, West Yorkshire, on July 2, 2021. (Oli Scarff / AFP via Getty Images)

It is a sign of how badly Keir Starmer’s leadership has been performing that it came as a huge relief to his allies when Labour held on to the Batley and Spen constituency by the skin of its teeth. The party’s candidate, Kim Leadbeater, saw off her Conservative rival by just over three hundred votes — less than 1 percent. Labour’s vote share dropped by over 7 percent compared with its 2019 performance, which Starmer’s outriders like to characterize as the worst since the 1930s.

As a rule, opposition parties do not lose by-elections to the government — especially not one that has been in power for more than a decade. After the fiasco in Hartlepool at the start of May, when the Tories routed Labour by a huge margin, Team Starmer feared a second humiliation. As it turned out, support for the Conservatives dropped as well as Labour’s, though not to the same extent. The only candidate to have gained support was a maverick outsider, George Galloway, who came from nowhere to win more than a fifth of the vote.

The Batley and Spen result has clear implications for Keir Starmer’s leadership and Labour’s future election prospects, which will no doubt receive ample attention. But the internal politics of the Labour Party are much less important than what Batley and Spen tells us about Britain’s political mainstream and its shameful treatment of ethnic minorities — in particular Muslims. This by-election campaign plumbed new depths, with the Muslim population of the area branded as homophobic antisemites because they didn’t find Labour’s pitch appealing. Labour’s dominant right-wing faction is fully complicit in that collective monstering.

Supporters of that faction have made a habit of blaming Starmer’s difficulties on a so-called “long Corbyn” phenomenon, even though Labour’s performances in Hartlepool and Batley and Spen were much worse than Jeremy Corbyn’s weakest result in 2019, let alone his high point two years earlier. But there is a grain of truth buried in this mendacious special pleading.

British public life is still paying the price for a toxic cross-party campaign to block the election of a left-wing government after Labour’s surprise result in June 2017. That campaign deliberately stoked fear and prejudice, pitting Jews against Muslims and Muslims against Hindus, without the slightest concern for the well-being of anyone in those communities. It is still going on today, long after Corbyn’s departure from the scene. Its after-effects are far more significant than the question of how long Keir Starmer will endure as his party’s leader.

Two Planks

The campaign of the Labour right against Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership between 2017 and 2019 rested on two main planks. The first was Brexit. Labour politicians and their media outriders worked tirelessly to undermine Labour’s Brexit policy, aiming to create a situation where the party would have to choose between antagonizing pro-Leave or pro-Remain sections of its electoral base. This gambit proved to be devastatingly effective in the 2019 general election, handing victory to Boris Johnson and his hard-Brexit platform.

The second plank was a false narrative that presented Corbyn’s Labour Party as an “existential threat to Jewish life in Britain.” According to the people who confected this story, Labour had suddenly become infested with antisemitic prejudice from top to bottom, all enabled and encouraged by the party leader and his associates. The narrative relied upon fabrication of evidence and the wholesale redefinition of antisemitism so that the term no longer had much or indeed any connection to bigotry against Jews. The majority of people in Britain may not have absorbed all the details of this rolling meta-controversy, but it certainly hobbled Corbyn’s leadership and deprived it of the space needed to put forward a positive agenda.

As soon as Keir Starmer became Labour leader, the party’s right wing dropped anti-Brexit maximalism like a hot stone. By the end of the year, Starmer was whipping his MPs to support Johnson’s hard-Brexit deal with the EU, without a murmur of protest from those who had repeatedly accused Corbyn of “enabling Brexit.” Starmer and his allies have spoken incessantly of the need to recover lost ground in the so-called “Red Wall” seats that went Tory in 2019. They have left the disciples of Continuity Remain to fend for themselves.

However, Starmer has continued to lean heavily upon the second plank as part of his factional war against the Labour left. His leadership has depicted its most eye-catching maneuvers on this front, from the sacking of Rebecca Long-Bailey to the suspension of Jeremy Corbyn from the Parliamentary Labour Party, as principled moves against “left antisemitism.”

Most British media outlets, from the right-wing tabloids to the liberal broadsheets, have cheered on this insulting charade. Team Starmer clearly believed they could keep pressing the button indefinitely without paying any political price. Then the latest by-election came along.

A Laundering Operation

Batley and Spen is a northern English constituency with a mixture of ethnicities: white British people are by far the largest group, but there is a substantial minority with South Asian heritage, both Indian and Pakistani — about one-fifth, according to the local council. As the by-election campaign gathered momentum, reports started filtering back that Labour was taking flak from Muslim voters over its positions on Kashmir and Palestine.

Those reports were anecdotal, of course, but they came from people with no incentive to lie, and Labour produced a special leaflet in an attempt to respond. Then an opinion poll suggested that the party was on course for defeat. What happened next showed just how low the British political establishment is willing to stoop in its campaign against the Left.

In this case, the principal vector of that establishment was the Labour right. It began with an article for the Mail on Sunday by columnist Dan Hodges that included the following off-the-record quote from a “senior Labour official”:

We’re haemorrhaging votes among Muslim voters, and the reason for that is what Keir has been doing on antisemitism. Nobody really wants to talk about it, but that’s the main factor. He challenged Corbyn on it, and there’s been a backlash among certain sections of the community.

It’s easy to imagine a “senior Tory official” trying to explain away the party’s low support among Muslim voters in similar terms, claiming that it was a “backlash” against steps taken by the Conservatives to protect the British public from religious extremism. In reality, Muslim voters distrust the Tories because, among many other things, they falsely branded a British imam, Suliman Gani, as a supporter of ISIS so they could smear a Labour election candidate as a “terrorist sympathizer.”

The quote fed to Dan Hodges by a Labour official involved a similar process of rhetorical laundering. There’s every reason to believe that Starmer’s leadership has alienated many British Muslims because of actions that it purported to be taking as part of the struggle against antisemitism. But those actions had no more to do with combating prejudice against Jews than the defamation of Suliman Gani had to do with combating terrorism.

Hostile Environment

Take the sacking of Rebecca Long-Bailey, almost exactly a year before the Batley and Spen by-election. The Labour leadership claimed that she was ousted for helping to propagate an “antisemitic conspiracy theory.” In fact, she had shared an interview with the actress Maxine Peake in which Peake said nothing whatsoever about Jewish people, while briefly referring to the well-documented relationship between US police forces and the Israeli state. She also repeated a suggestion by the Israeli activist Neta Golan that this relationship was the source of a particular restraint technique used by the officer who killed George Floyd in Minneapolis.

Neta Golan subsequently explained that this was an “unverified assumption” on her part, which she now believed to be mistaken, rather than an established fact:

Weapons used on Palestinian protests are sold as “battle-tested,” and Israeli forces train security forces around the world, including the Minneapolis police. This is fact. I assumed that the kneeling-in on handcuffed detainees that I experienced was one of the tactics they shared. I have since learned that chokeholds have been systematically practised by the US police long before I experienced them in the West Bank.

She went on to attack the Labour leader for branding Peake’s comments as an attack on Britain’s Jewish community:

This denies the existence of many Jews who, like me, oppose Israeli apartheid, including many Jewish members of the Labour Party, and a growing number of young anti-Zionist Jews who also represent and are part of the Jewish community. Jews are not a homogeneous group with the same views — far from it. The assumption that Israel represents Jews and that all Jews are Zionists is in itself a false, anti-Jewish assumption.

Starmer and his team were in no mood to listen. They spent the next year repeatedly conflating the Israeli state with British Jews. In October 2020, Starmer’s shadow foreign secretary, Lisa Nandy, rounded on the Labour MP Stephen Kinnock after he called for a ban on the products of illegal West Bank settlements. A Labour source drove home the message she wanted to convey: “Lisa made no secret of the fact that she and the leader were angry with Kinnock — especially after all the work that has been done to try to restore Labour’s relationship with the Jewish community.”

A report published soon after Nandy made those comments revealed widespread distrust of Starmer’s leadership among Muslim members and supporters of the Labour Party. While Palestine was not the only factor behind this, Starmer’s orientation on that issue was clearly symptomatic of wider attitudes, as he made abundantly clear in April of this year. Starmer pulled out of an online fast-breaking event during Ramadan because one of the organizers had called for a boycott of Israeli dates. He also declined to answer an letter from British-Palestinian Labour members that accused him of creating a “hostile and unwelcoming” atmosphere for them in the party.

When Starmer refuses to share the same virtual space as a man who supports a perfectly legal form of protest against the oppression of the Palestinian people, it requires a lot of effort not to see what is going on and who is being told to take their place at the back of the bus. Journalists may find it professionally vital to make that effort, but they cannot expect British Muslims to ignore what is staring them in the face.

It’s important to remember what the motivation behind Starmer’s conduct in this area actually is. It may sometimes appear as if his leadership is taking direction from groups like the Board of Deputies of British Jews, but that is an optical illusion. The demands of pro-Israel campaigning groups harmonize neatly with the geopolitical interests of the British state and its ruling class, which is what really matters.

The campaign against all meaningful support for Palestinian rights that has now dominated British public life for several years is a convenient way of targeting anyone who deviates from the wider foreign-policy consensus. Corbyn’s rise to prominence threatened to punch a hole in that consensus: the memory of his speech after the 2017 Manchester bombing clearly still haunts the gatekeepers of conventional wisdom. The ongoing attacks on his reputation and that of the movement he led are a response to that threat.

IPSO Facto

Labour’s deputy leader, Angela Rayner, did put out a statement repudiating the Labour official’s claim to Dan Hodges, although Starmer himself remained conspicuously silent. But the anonymous briefing had done its job. All of a sudden, the media narrative shifted from Kashmir and Palestine to unsubstantiated claims about antisemitism in the Muslim population of Batley and Spen.

At this point, the Jewish Chronicle stuck its oar into the debate. A lurid report from the constituency suggested that Muslim voters were turning on Labour not only because they were antisemitic but also because they were homophobic. The article drew on quotes attributed to four unnamed individuals. Needless to say, those quotes might be broadly representative of Muslims in the area, or they might just as well be freakishly abnormal. Anecdotal evidence of this kind must be handled with great care, which is the very last thing one would expect from the Chronicle.

The paper, edited by Stephen Pollard, has an extraordinary record of misleading its readership, which might perhaps be chalked down to gross incompetence if the thrust of these “mistakes” did not always point in the same political direction. A month before the by-election, Pollard was obliged to print yet another jaw-dropping correction:

In our issue of 12 March, we reported that Marc Wadsworth had spoken at the launch event for the “Labour in Exile Network” (LIEN), a group that aimed to discover the addresses of Jewish Labour activists to “take care” of them, and that he was thereby complicit in a conspiracy to intimidate, threaten or harass Jewish activists into silence. We also suggested that there were reasonable grounds to suspect that such activities were criminal. Our story was wrong. Mr Wadsworth did not speak or even attend the online event. Mr Wadsworth is not a member of LIEN and we accept that he has not been involved in any of the group’s activities. We apologize to Mr Wadsworth for our error and have agreed to pay damages to him.

The press regulator IPSO has reprimanded the Chronicle again and again and again for making inaccurate claims about members of the Labour and Green parties. In every case, the effect of these misrepresentations was to reinforce a picture of widespread “left antisemitism” that bore no relation to the facts. The newspaper also had to pay £50,000 in damages after falsely associating a British charity that supports Palestinians with terrorism.

The cost of settling these actions must have contributed to the Chronicle’s financial difficulties, which left it facing bankruptcy last spring. However, a consortium came to the rescue, fronted by Theresa May’s former spin doctor Robbie Gibb; the ex–Labour MP John Woodcock, who campaigned for Boris Johnson in the 2019 election and received a peerage shortly afterward; and the broadcaster John Ware, creator of the much-vaunted BBC documentary “Is Labour Antisemitic?” The consortium kept Stephen Pollard and the editorial culture that he superintends in place, with predictable results.

If the purpose of a system is what it does, the purpose of the Chronicle is to produce stories like the alleged vox pop from Batley and Spen. It would be very easy for a reporter to find four white people whose stated objections to Labour were clearly based on racism, homophobia, or some other form of prejudice. The fact that this sort of thing only happens to Muslims is one obvious factor behind their alienation from the mainstream political process and the media discourse that envelops it.

Not So Gorgeous George

While the main challenge to Labour in the constituency came from the Tories, much of the reporting focused on a third-party candidate, George Galloway. Galloway has been an intermittent presence on the British political scene for the last two decades. Formerly a Labour MP, he broke with the party over the invasion of Iraq and set up a rival group called Respect with a left-wing, antiwar platform. In the 2005 general election, Galloway won a seat at Labour’s expense in the East London constituency of Bethnal Green and Bow, which has a large Muslim population.

The Respect leader lost his parliamentary foothold in 2010. He regained it two years later after a shock by-election victory in Bradford West, another constituency with an unusually high proportion of Muslim voters. In hindsight, Galloway’s Bradford triumph was an early sign of mass disaffection with the British political establishment that has underpinned so many of the key developments over the last decade, from the Scottish independence movement and the Brexit vote to the rise and fall of Corbynism. But he dropped out of Westminster again in 2015, and he spent the next few years hopping from one electoral contest to another without the faintest whiff of success.

Galloway’s erratic and egotistical behavior alienated most of his allies in Respect, which is now defunct. Salma Yaqoob, the only Respect candidate who could rival Galloway’s national profile, resigned from the party in 2012, after comments he made about the rape allegations against Julian Assange that trivialized sexual assault. It seemed to be the last straw for Yaqoob after years of frustration. Since the demise of Respect, the content of Galloway’s political interventions has become significantly worse.

In the 2021 Scottish Parliament election, he ran unsuccessfully for his own anti-independence party, All For Unity, whose deputy leader was a Conservative landowner. Galloway even announced that he would be voting for the Tories to combat the Scottish National Party — a stance that earned him a highly sympathetic profile from the website ConservativeHome.

Respect’s 2005 manifesto combined social-democratic economic policies with opposition to British foreign policy in the peak years of the “war on terror.” This is probably what most people still associate with Galloway. But he has since added a deeply unpleasant strain of social conservatism to his pitch, expressed in the following comments during the by-election campaign: “Labour is going out in a puff of wokery. Its trans-mania infatuation has turned off millions.”

Pots and Kettles

There are many good reasons to dislike and distrust George Galloway, and there is no desirable future for the British left that involves working with or around him, especially not in his current incarnation. However, when politicians from the Labour right wax wroth about his iniquities, it’s hard not to picture a meeting of the Five Families where they passionately condemn the low ethical standards of the Russian mafia.

Since the 2019 election, there has been incessant talk from this political quarter about Labour’s need to win over working-class voters with conservative social values. Keir Starmer has responded by adopting a flag-and-fatherland agenda and hosting a phone-in show that gives white supremacists a hearing with the obnoxious right-wing shock jock Nick Ferrari. That hasn’t stopped right-wing Labour MPs from denouncing the alleged grip of “woke social media warriors” over the party. Galloway’s dog-whistle remarks about “wokery” and “trans-mania” could have been taken straight from a recent essay by his great adversary Tony Blair.

Starmer and other Labour politicians accused Galloway of peddling a “divisive” agenda in Batley and Spen, as if this approach to politics was entirely foreign to their party. This butter-wouldn’t-melt posture is so disingenuous that it’s hard to know where to begin. Let’s start with the most blatant example. In 2010, a court expelled the Labour MP Phil Woolas from the House of Commons for breaking electoral law by lying about his opponent in the course of a nakedly racist election campaign. An internal email from one of his staffers that explained the rationale behind that campaign included the following line: “If we don’t get the white folk angry he’s gone.”

A leaflet distributed by Woolas crossed the line from dog-whistle racism to the fog-horn variety:

Extremists are trying to hijack this election. They want you to vote Lib Dem to punish Phil for being strong on immigration. The Lib Dems plan to give hundreds of thousands of illegal immigrants the right to stay. It is up to you. Do you want the extremists to win?

In case there was any doubt about the identity of those “extremists,” the leaflet had a photo of some scary-looking Muslims holding placards that bore the message “BEHEAD THOSE WHO INSULT ISLAM.”

Quite as revealing as the campaign itself was the furious backlash from Labour MPs when their caretaker leader Harriet Harman said that Woolas had no future in the party. Tom Watson, who later became Labour’s deputy leader and its self-appointed arbiter of anti-racist principle, announced that he had “lost sleep thinking about poor old Phil Woolas and his leaflets,” railing bitterly against the grave injustice suffered by “a bright working-class lad done well.” One Labour politician who defended Woolas, Wes Streeting, is now part of Keir Starmer’s front-bench team.

The Woolas case was an especially blatant example of racist coat-trailing by the Labour faction that likes to style itself as “moderate” and “mainstream,” but it was by no means the exception to the rule. Margaret Hodge is one of the most prominent figures in the Parliamentary Labour Party and another self-styled guardian of virtue who threatened to resign if Starmer readmitted Jeremy Corbyn as a Labour MP. In 2007, Hodge’s race-baiting comments about immigration prompted her own party colleague, Alan Johnson, to accuse her of echoing the neo-fascist British National Party.

The British media may have the memory of a goldfish when it comes to episodes like this, but you can’t expect the people on the receiving end to forget them so quickly. Anyone in Batley and Spen who was planning to vote for George Galloway is likely to have responded with a hollow laugh to the attacks on his campaign from Labour. The old saw about pots and kettles doesn’t really do justice to the situation. The Labour right’s dislike of Galloway is the rage of someone forced to take a look in the mirror, with the tactics they consider perfectly acceptable for their own side turned against them for once.

Galloway is a self-consciously theatrical figure who leans into his pantomime-villain role: it would have come as little surprise if he showed up in the constituency wearing a purple suit and white face paint, asking voters if they just wanted to watch the world burn. No lasting good will come of any political initiative that has him at its heart. But Galloway’s rise to prominence in Batley and Spen is a symptom far more than it is a cause. His bid for support as a protest candidate would have fallen on stony ground if the Labour Party hadn’t given British Muslims so much to protest about.

Turning up the Heat

By the last week of the campaign, Batley and Spen had become a prism for everything that’s wrong with British political discourse about racism. Labour put out a leaflet that attacked Tory Islamophobia and Boris Johnson’s support for the violent clampdown in Kashmir. The leaflet included a picture of the Tory leader with India’s prime minister, Narendra Modi. Labour Friends of India promptly denounced it, and one Labour MP suggested that it was an example of “dog-whistle racism.”

In truth, the only thing wrong with the message was its crass opportunism, since Keir Starmer had previously made a great show of repositioning Labour on Kashmir, describing it as an internal matter for the Indian parliament. That move came after British supporters of Modi and the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) denounced a Labour conference motion that supported democratic rights in Kashmir, which they claimed was “anti-Indian” and “anti-Hindu.” These Hindutva activists sought to intervene in the 2019 general election, urging British Indians to vote for the Conservative Party.

This effort didn’t receive as much attention in the national media as the “Labour antisemitism” meta-controversy, but its structure was identical. A group of long-distance nationalists claimed to speak on behalf of an entire community and presented criticism of an oppressive state as a form of ethnic bigotry. If media outlets and freelance campaigners had been willing to put in the hours, no doubt they could have found genuine examples of Labour members making prejudicial comments about Indians or about Hindus, just as they could find genuine examples of Labour members expressing antisemitic remarks. The real deceit lies in presenting such cases as representative of an entire movement, and in lumping them together with entirely commendable support for the rights of Palestinians or Kashmiris.

The Batley and Spen campaign wasn’t just a thermometer: it turned up the heat another few notches. Labour held on to the seat, and most commentators will soon forget the vilification of a community that has been disproportionately loyal to the party — that is, if they ever acknowledged it in the first place. Away from the Westminster bubble, many British Muslims will remember, just as they have remembered other moments that showed the contempt in which the political mainstream holds them. Even with the best will in the world, it would take a long time to repair the damage that has been done over the past few years, and there is no sign yet of that will manifesting itself among those in positions of responsibility.