By-elections rarely cause political earthquakes but as the most recent one in Chesham and Amersham has highlighted, they can cause tremors that reverberate through political parties, knocking a brick or two from territorial walls in their wake.
Batley and Spen is the next by-election that has the potential to run roughshod over the political ambitions of the Labour leader, Keir Starmer, by delivering a defeat in a constituency held by Labour for eight consecutive elections, since 1997. Two factors will play a key part in the July 1 poll: the presence of George Galloway and his new Workers Party, and the effective slow disenfranchisement of the white working-class vote.
The self-styled champion of Muslims in the UK and abroad, George Galloway, the maverick former MP for Labour and the Respect Party is back on the political campaign trail as leader-candidate for the Workers Party, founded in 2019.
Galloway has a track record of using global issues, such as the 2003 war in Iraq and the Israel-Palestine conflict, to galvanise the Muslim vote, with some success. He won Bethnal Green and Bow in the 2005 general election and secured victory in the 2012 by-election in Bradford West. It is this latter success that he will hope to emulate.
But Galloway is more effective at campaigning rather than serving. He lost his Bradford West seat to Labour in 2015 because he was perceived as not being interested in delivering the “better Bradford” he had promised. As one person I interviewed at a 2015 hustings commented: “It’s all well and good talking about Palestine but he has done nothing here on the streets of Bradford.”
Nevertheless, Galloway may have a better chance of recapturing a young Muslim audience in the wake of the recent escalation of troubles between Israel and Palestine. While not winning the election, he does have the potential to split the Muslim vote, taking away crucial votes from the Labour party and leading to their possible defeat.
‘Left-behind’ working-class vote
White working-class voters have, over several years, been left out of political conversations and concern in constituencies such as Batley and Spen. Recategorised recently as the “left-behind”, these communities are purported to have fared badly both economically and culturally in processes of globalisation.
On the economic front, as the UK has moved away from its manufacturing base and jobs have been outsourced around the world, areas that were formerly thriving centres of work and community have slid further and deeper into spirals of decline. Increased immigration and changing local landscapes have raised questions about what had formerly seemed solid and stable views on culture and identity.
In material terms, in the political sphere, the bond between the Labour Party and the white working class has fractured. In some multicultural urban constituencies, the Labour Party’s focus and efforts have been to pursue minority voters.
Jo Cox, who had held Batley and Spen, until her murder by a right-wing extremist in 2016, had, unlike so many Labour politicians, tried to work with the different communities in the constituency.
This can be politically expedient. Kinship networks in south Asian communities can, and have, helped to deliver bloc votes and thereby swing the result. But this has left the white working class off the political agenda.
In the neighbouring northern multicultural city of Bradford, research has shown that the white working class is often left out of political campaigning. One of the starkest examples of this was highlighted by the current MP for Bradford West, Naz Shah. During campaigning for the 2015 general election, she reported in a talk at the University of Bradford that in her constituency of Bradford West white residents had complained of aspiring politicians not even knocking on their doors. Instead, these politicians relied on minority kinship networks for votes. Confident that bloc votes would be delivered, they did not believe they needed to engage with anyone else.
And so white working-class communities, the people that the Labour Party was created to represent, have effectively been disenfranchised from politics in some areas. This is disenfranchisement is actually also true of many in the south Asian communities too, where kinship networks exclude the voices of women and young people, since kinship networks work via kin elders who are most often older males.
In Batley and Spen, as Galloway gallivants in to woo the south Asian Muslim vote, the Labour Party will do well not to simply focus on the constituents it fears will be lost to Galloway’s message. That way lies only the further political disenfranchisement of the white working class.