Back to Batley and Spen: Labour Is up Against Apathy in Jo Cox’s Former Constituency

by Ethan Shone

9 December 2019

It’s midday outside a taxi office in Cleckheaton, West Yorkshire, and a man who is still out from the night before is talking about politics. 

The temperature hovers around five degrees and he’s wearing a grey t-shirt and washed out jeans. He looks jaded. 

“I’m not fucking voting, there’s no point.” 

The man, who doesn’t want to be named, is expressing in stark terms a view shared by all too many here and across the country.   

“I just think what politics is, yeah, is them saying whatever they want, and when they get into office they don’t do any of it.”

He’s not talking about Brexit, or any particular policy, this is just how he feels about politics in general.

Before it had even got underway – before dubious bar charts, dodgy manifesto websites and a Question Time crowd jeering the very notion of whether the prime minister is an honest man or not – this election was always going to be about trust. Not just about trust in individual politicians, but in the entire political system. More than that, in the possibility of meaningful change. 

“We need a Labour government. But everyone’s so mad about Brexit, they don’t see what’s important.”

Batley and Spen is made up of a handful of small, semi-urban towns and villages, dotted across a green, undulating swathe of Yorkshire. Not more than 30 minutes from the centre of Leeds (traffic dependent), people from the city are most likely to know it as the turn-off for the local Ikea. To me, it’s the place I grew up, where I lived for the first 16 years of my life.

“It’s an incredibly diverse area in many different ways,” explains Jawad Khan, a local Labour party activist, “but you always see that everyone is affected by the same issues”. 

Many of these issues are shared by other towns across the post-industrial north. Reliable employment in the textiles, mining and engineering industries has been replaced over the decades, in large part by retail and administrative work, which is all too often insecure and poorly paid. 

The small towns of Batley, Cleckheaton, Gomersal, Birstall, Liversedge and Heckmondwike have seen each of their once bustling highstreets gradually grow quieter, as those with money to spend take it to the retail park just off the motorway at Birstall, or shop online. 

Schools in the area have suffered huge funding cuts, as has the local hospital, and child poverty rates are higher than the national average in three of six wards.

Anne Marie has lived in Cleckheaton most of her life. She’s in a rush, but stops briefly near what used to be a big independent music shop to tell me she’s worried about this election and what will happen to places like this if a Conservative government retains power.  

“We need a Labour government, people round here need good public services,” she says. “But everyone’s so mad about Brexit, they don’t see what’s important”.

This seat has been Labour-held since 1997, but Ukip picked up almost a fifth of the vote in 2015 and 59% of people in the area voted to leave the EU in 2016. It is very much the kind of Northern rugby-league town described by centre-right think tank Onward when it identified the ‘Wokington man’ – over 45, white, without a degree, a Brexit supporter, worried about crime, “favours security over freedom – as a key demographic the Tories could win over to secure a victory in this election. So while Batley and Spen is not officially a Tory target, it certainly ticks a number of boxes for the kind of seat they’re hoping to prize away from Labour. 

Jo Cox.

Outside the area, most people know Batley and Spen as the place where during the Brexit referendum in 2016 the sitting Labour MP, Jo Cox, was murdered.

Former-actress Tracy Brabin secured the largest Labour majority in the seat’s history in 2017, of almost 9000, after first winning the by-election which took place following Cox’s murder in 2016. The two politicians had been friends.  

Inevitably, the tragic event has impacted the way politics works in Batley and Spen. Candidates have all signed a pledge, organised by the Jo Cox Foundation, to fight a campaign ‘free of abuse and intimidation’. Some parties aren’t door knocking after dark – opting instead for phone-banking – and discussing Cox at all is, understandably, highly sensitive. When asked about the effect her murder has had on politics here, one man stops me mid-sentence. 

“I’m not being funny” he says, “but if you go around asking about Jo Cox round here, people will tell you to fuck off”. Duly noted. 

A lot of people I speak with here won’t vote, either out of apathy or anger. There are Tory voters, shy and otherwise. A few say they’ll vote Brexit Party. A local independent candidate attracts not-insignificant support, but mostly online. One man says he’ll consider voting Lib Dem.   

Of those supporting Labour, like everywhere there are some who joined the movement as a result of Corbyn’s leadership and are enthusiastic about his policies, and there are those who still begrudgingly support the party despite, not because, of Corbyn.

For the former, people like Rhiannon, 16, and Suffiya, 32, there’s a real sense of optimism. Despite a lot of justified feeling both locally and nationally that politics in 2019 can be a particularly off-putting place for women, both have recently felt compelled to get involved because of Labour’s bold, transformative policies.

Even among the latter, it does sometimes feel this is based not so much on a personal dislike of Corbyn, but concern about “electability” as a result of his “chequered history” on certain issues. Shaun, 56, falls into this category. 

“I believe him to be a decent enough bloke who’s heart is in the right place. But he just doesn’t play well with a lot of people”.

Ali isn’t enthused either. He runs a local cab firm and says he used to provide Labour with cars and drivers to get the vote out on polling day. He’ll vote Labour this time, he says, but only because the other choices are so bad. 

There are a few who feel very differently about Labour. Two men on the street in Cleckheaton laugh derisively at the mention of Corbyn, and a self-described “ex-Labour man” calls Corbyn “absolutely useless”. Another says all local Labour and Momentum activists are “scum”. 

But mostly, among those who won’t vote Labour, the reason is the same: they don’t see the plans as realistic, nice though they may be.  

“I voted to Leave and that’s not happened. To me, what’s the point in giving us a vote if you’re not going to do it?” 

On the street, Brexit doesn’t come up a huge amount. But when I post in some community Facebook groups, a lot of those who reply want me to know they care most of all about Brexit.   

Brabin has been upfront and consistent in her view that a Conservative Brexit would not benefit the people of Batley and Spen. 

“I’ve always respected the result of the referendum. However, with more than 7,000 jobs in manufacturing locally – not even taking into account the supply chains – we must have a deal that works for us and doesn’t make Batley and Spen poorer.”

Though not one of the most avid anti-brexiters, her views and actions have nonetheless left some constituents feeling as though she doesn’t represent them on an issue they care deeply about. 

For some, this means voting for one of three candidates running on an explicitly pro-Brexit platform, one from the Conservative party, one from the Brexit Party candidate and an independent. Clive Minihan, the Brexit Party candidate, is all too aware of the risk of a split-vote allowing Labour to retain the seat, but still feels that he’s best placed to deliver Brexit and real change for the area. 

For others though, the Brexit psychodrama has eroded faith in politics in a much deeper way, perhaps incurably. Like for Sean, who in the past has taken part in every national vote he’s been able to, including, crucially, the 2016 referendum.  

“I’m never voting again. I don’t say that lightly. But I won’t and neither will my wife,” he says.

“I voted to Leave and that’s not happened. To me, what’s the point in giving us a vote if you’re not going to do it?” 

The failure of politicians to deliver Brexit is often characterised not as a glaring exception, but part of a much wider trend. Politicians in general, it is felt, just don’t do the things they say they will. 

Informed by this issue of trust is the strong feeling from some voters that they would prefer a local candidate. This stands to reason; people who feel they’ve been lied to seek familiarity, but also greater accountability from their representatives.

This is an important criteria for Brexit supporters, which should really have been foreseen by the Conservative and Brexit Parties. Both have attracted criticism for fielding a “paper candidate” from elsewhere. Although Minihan currently splits his time between Twickenham and North Yorkshire, he’s an improvement on their initial choice in terms of local appeal; their original candidate, Jill Hughes, was dropped after it was revealed she claims to hail from the distant star of Sirius Twickenham is, in an intergalactic context at least, very much local. 

This seems to be the basis for much of Paul Halloran’s support. As a local sportsman-turned-businessman who has lived in the constituency his entire life, he is seen by some as the only candidate who truly knows and cares for the area.

But there is also a feeling locally, particularly among BAME residents and other activists, that Halloran hasn’t done enough to prove he would represent constituents of all religions and races. There are concerns too that some of Halloran’s support comes from the far right, which has historically been able to muster notable if minor support here. Halloran did not respond to a series of questions. 

Brabin was born in the area, and is well-liked by those I speak with who know her, but there’s a sense among others that she doesn’t spend enough time in the constituency. She is keen to defend her record on this. 

“I’ve helped thousands of people across Batley and Spen on all manner of issues,” she says.

“I spend as much time in our community as time allows, and I’m proud of my record representing Batley and Spen”.

Labour must prove it’s not the same.

Besides Brexit, most people’s anxieties revolve around a general feeling of decline and stagnation. Public services, transport links and a rise in low-level crime all come up often on the street. While there’s a strong feeling of community here, there are also clearly worries about the way things seem to be going. 

But in places like this, which have been represented in Westminster and governed locally mostly by Labour in recent years, there is scepticism of the idea that blame can be pinned entirely on the Tories. 

Michael is 22, and feels that as he’s grown up he’s seen his community suffer increasing decline.  

“Ever since Labour became our council many shops went out of business and have been abandoned for so many years. I feel Batley isn’t getting invested in like it used to.”

Just or not, this belief that it’s not a particular politician or even party to blame but the whole lot of them, is quite widely felt in Batley and Spen – perhaps as it is nationally. To win back these voters Labour must not only prove that they’re not the same as the Tories, but that they’re not the same as anything we’ve seen in modern political history.

Here, due to a solid Labour base, a committed candidate and the inevitable vote-splitting that will occur between the three pro-Brexit candidates, it seems likely that Tracy Brabin will hold the seat for Labour. This broad erosion of trust might depress turnout, but it probably won’t swing the result.

Nationally though, the fact that Labour’s plans would enrich the lives of so many will count for nothing if people cannot be convinced to trust them to deliver it, or to hope that meaningful positive change is even possible. 

Christine is in her 70’s and has never much cared for politics. She’s voted in the past, but not in every election, and probably won’t this time. 

We chat for a long time, sat on a wall near Birstall marketplace, with her little black dog, Tilly. 

“I just think they promise whatever they want,” says Christine. 

“Still, it’d be a shame wouldn’t it? If someone actually meant what they promised, and we didn’t believe them.”

Ethan Shone is a freelance journalist and co-founder of JUST Politics. Based in East Yorkshire, he covers politics and social affairs. His work has appeared in The Overtake, Vice and more. 

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