The byelection for a Member of Parliament in the Yorkshire constituency of Batley was a paradigm of this ugliness
Ugly are the ways of democracy in which all manner of prejudice, idiotic belief, irrational allegiance, self-righteous opinion and perceived individual material benefit guide the hand as it hovers above the ballot box. But OK, that being said, gentle reader, I suppose one has to agree with Winston Churchill when he said it’s the best worst system of being ruled.
The byelection for a Member of Parliament in the Yorkshire constituency of Batley was a paradigm of this ugliness. These towns of Yorkshire and Lancashire were developed as the manufacturing base of textiles in the nineteenth century. Indian historians record the sale of Lancashire cotton to the subcontinental colony and the boycotting of these by the Independence movement in favour of Swadeshi fabric and khadi.
After the Second World War, these mills suffered an acute shortage of labour. None of them could recruit workers for the night and even for some hard-pressed day shifts. This chasm of dearth was filled in the 1950s and 1960s through the import of immigrant labour, in main from Mirpur in Pakistan-occupied Kashmir.
Hence the population of Batley is, despite the closure of the mills in the era in which Margaret Thatcher was Prime Minister, still 25 or so per cent immigrant and Muslim. This immigrant population traditionally supported the Labour Party in every election for the last several decades. Mais plus ca change!
Its last MP, Tracy Brabin, was a Labour member and she resigned to contest and take up the mayoralty of West Yorkshire. The MP before her was one Jo Cox, who was stabbed to death on the streets of Batley by a maniac who claimed to be a white supremacist Nazi. Now, with the resignation of her successor, the byelection was called. Jo Cox’s sister, Kim Leadbeater, stood as the Labour candidate. And before I tell you the result, gentle reader, let me sum up the nastiness of the campaign.
Ms Leadbeater is openly lesbian and that, in an advanced democracy such as Britain – in contrast to, shall we say, an election in Iran -- ought not to matter one jot. There are several gay and lesbian MPs in the British Parliament as the population, by and large, doesn’t concern itself with the sexual orientation, or even the adulterous behaviour, of the candidates when casting their votes.
But perhaps not in Batley. For why?
Enter George Galloway. This maverick is a professional Scottish politician who was once a member of the Labour Party but was thrown out of it for turning up in Iraq when Britain was fighting a war there and virtually bending the knee to Saddam Hussein. He has since made himself an advocate of “Islamic” causes, mainly international support for Palestine and virulent criticism of Israeli domestic policy which veers, though Mr Galloway is adamant in his denial of it, into blatant anti-Semitism.
Mr Galloway parachuted himself into the Batley byelection standing for a fantasy outfit he founded called The Workers Party. His object wasn’t to get elected and represent the constituency, but to take Muslim immigrant votes away from Labour so that the Conservatives could take the seat. His object was to demonstrate that the Labour Party can’t continue to be led by Sir Keir Starmer. His campaign posters in the town declared that Sir Keir Starmer must go.
I must admit, gentle reader, that I know this George Galloway and while I can concur with his support of Palestine against Israeli policy and its murderous attacks, I don’t have much time for him. I came across him in the 1970s and 1980s, through left-wing events.
Then, when my daughters were of secondary school age, they were accepted by an ex-grammar school even though we lived outside the catchment area. Mr Galloway’s daughter also lived outside the area and he got her in after arduous appeals and pulling strings.
He recalled this as an injustice when we met in Karachi at a literary festival some years ago. Myself and other writers were surprised to see billed as the chief guest and speaker at the festival, the non-literary, non-writer George Galloway, invited we suppose for his stance on Iraq.
When, one evening, the writers piled into a coach taking us to a British Council party, the organiser boarded the bus saying: “Farrukh, George Galloway wants you to ride with him in his chief-guest limo.” The entire coach began to derisively jeer. I was embarrassed, but for politeness’ sake rode with George to the party.
In Batley, Mr Galloway courted the Muslim vote through support for those Muslims who disapproved of Kim Leadbeater for being a lesbian and shouted at her as she campaigned, saying she will support the spread of lesbian and gay “propaganda: in their children’s schools. Mr Galloway also accused her of having an anti-Palestinian and pro-Israeli stance. None of this is true. But it’s politics and nastiness, prejudice and lies are par for the course.
Despite all this, Ms Leadbeater won the seat for Labour with a narrow majority of 326 votes. The disturbing fact, however, is that Mr Galloway polled 21 per cent of the vote, which is approximately the percentage of the Muslim population of the constituency.
Mr Galloway, perhaps in a feeble imitation of Donald Trump, has now declared that he will go to the courts to challenge the result.