UK parties battle for Muslim vote in Batley and Spen, as George Galloway swoops in
The UK's opposition Labour Party is battling to retain favour among Muslim voters ahead of the Batley and Spen by-election on Thursday, viewed as a key test for Keir Starmer's leadership following two Labour by-elections defeats earlier this year.
The West Yorkshire constituency has been held by the centre-left party for 24 years and is now being contested by 16 candidates. Labour is represented by Kim Leadbeater, sister of the area’s former MP Jo Cox who was murdered in 2016, and ex-Labour politician George Galloway, standing for the Workers Party of Britain.
The local Muslim community - around 8,500 people - has been a key target of Galloway with many former Labour supporters feeling abandoned by the party. Some have found a new political home with Galloway, the Conservatives, or elsewhere. There are huge fears in the Labour camp that Galloway's sudden surge in popularity could split the vote and hand the seat to the Conservatives.
Senior Labour figures believe the party only has a 5 percent to 10 percent chance of holding the West Yorkshire seat and are bracing themselves for a backbench revolt, according to The Guardian.
Labour Councillor John Haywood, who was canvassing alongside Tan Dhesi MP in Batley over the weekend, told The New Arab that he did not encounter any "anti-Keir" sentiment when talking to voters on doorsteps.
While some voters in Batley were "swinging back" to Labour, he said others no longer support the party and he could not explain why.
"Some people were prepared to listen to us", while others "didn't want to tell us why they were leaving Labour", said Haywood.
He said Palestine was raised as a concern by residents, alongside more local issues like potholes and pavements.
Nadeem Raja, manager of the Indian Muslim Welfare Society in Batley, told reporters: "People here in Batley and Spen, especially Muslims, have voted for the Labour Party for generations [but] feel that the Labour party should understand their feelings a bit better than anybody else and they’ve felt... let down."
Raja said people feel especially let down by Starmer due to the belief he was slow to respond to Israeli attacks on Palestinians. This is a sentiment shared by many Muslim voters.
"Keir took the time to condemn two idiots for being antisemitic last month but he won’t condemn the Israeli government for killing innocent people," said Wajjad Hussain to The Guardian.
"I've voted Labour my whole life but I won't be blindly giving them my vote anymore," said Hussain.
A recent poll commissioned by the Labour Muslim Network (LMN) made plain that the British Muslim community have not warmed to Keir Starmer, with the leader’s net favourability at minus 7 per cent.
"There is a widening gap between British Muslims who identify with The Labour Party and those who support Keir Starmer," Carl Shoben from Survation, the organisation that conducted the poll, told The New Arab.
The poll also showed an 11 percent drop in the number of British Muslims identifying with the Labour Party from May 2021 compared to the 2019 General Election. It was conducted via telephone interviews with around 500 Batley and Spen voters from 9 and 17 June.
Alongside the poll, the LMN issued a statement criticising Labour for allegedly taking British Muslim votes for granted.
Ali Milani, an executive member of the LMN, tweeted on Monday that Labour had not consulted Muslim members at any point during the Batley and Spen by-election.
"We've not been asked to help with messaging related to Islamophobia, Palestine, Kashmir or any other issue," he tweeted.
Just to be clear, at no point has the Labour Party consulted with @LabourMuslims on communications or strategy on outreach to the Muslim Community in Batley. Nothing.— Ali Milani (@ARMilani_) June 28, 2021
We've not been asked to help with messaging related to Islamophobia, Palestine, Kashmir or any other issue.
If Labour loses the by-election - which a recent poll by Survation predicts that they will, putting the Conservatives at a 6 point lead - pundits predict Starmer's future as party leader will be called into question.
"People don't have a clear definition of what Keir Starmer stands for," said Shoben.
Unlike Labour’s former leader Jeremy Corbyn - who was either "loved or hated" - Starmer has not been able to drive voters to the Party, said Shoben.
Meanwhile, Prime Minister Boris Johnson has been a "positive" force in getting people to vote Conservative, he added.
In Batley and Spen at the weekend I spoke to quite a few people who said they were voting Labour but had considered not voting Labour.— Cllr John Haywood (@ringwodian) June 29, 2021
In this case the biggest reason given was local issues - roads, pavements, litter, trees not being maintained.
Over the weekend, incidents of harassment were reported by Labour campaigners, including the mayor of West Yorkshire and Batley and Spen’s former MP Tracy Brabin. They were pelted with eggs, "followed, verbally abused and physically assaulted" on Sunday, according to the BBC.
Labour candidate Leadbeater was also heckled in the streets and followed by a man on Friday, who challenged her on issues such as Kashmir and LGBT+ education. The man was not from the local area, according to reports.
While Haywood said he did not see any incidents of harassment himself, individuals did try to "provoke" campaigners.
When asked whether Labour had taken the Muslim vote for granted, Haywood was diplomatic and questioned what being "taken for granted" really means.
Galloway - who is in third place according to polling - has presented himself throughout the election as a pro-Palestine candidate who aims to shake up the Labour Party.
In a recent interview, Galloway said "Keir Starmer has to be punished" for his lacklustre approach on issues such as Palestinian rights. He also said that if Labour doesn’t come third he will eat his trademark fedora hat.
The candidate denied his supporters have been involved in incidents of harassment.
Meanwhile, the Conservatives have run a low-key campaign but one that seems to be paying dividends.
When speaking to reporters, the Conservative candidate Ryan Stephenson said people wanted a "proactive" representative and that "Keir Starmer's candidate and George Galloway were fighting like cats in a sack at the minute".
That could be just enough for a Tory win.