“My brother was a miner, my dad was a builder, my mam was a barmaid who worked in mills, I was a nurse – you’re not going to vote anybody but Labour, are you?”
Cheryl Rowan, 62, is just the type of voter that the Labour party is desperately trying to hold on to in next week’s byelection in Batley and Spen, and in their former northern heartlands more generally. She lives in one of a small row of council houses in Heckmondwike, a town formerly known for manufacturing blankets as part of West Yorkshire’s heavy woollen district. That industry is long gone.
“There’s no shoe factories, no textiles, we were a northern powerhouse but now we ain’t got anything but restaurants and a new swimming pool that’s getting built that you can work at, and care … there’s no other jobs,” Rowan says.
Across Batley and Spen, almost one in three adults are economically inactive, compared with Britain’s average of just over one in five. However, home ownership is high in Heckmondwike: 71% of residents own their houses, and 60% of the homes are detached or semi-detached.
Known as Hecky, the town is a politically significant battleground in this byelection: Labour managed to hold on to the ward in May’s local elections, but the Conservative party doubled its votes.
Kim Leadbeater, the Labour candidate, and her older sister Jo Cox grew up in Heckmondwike and are well known here. James Pickles, 34, and Samantha Dakin, 30, remember Cox visiting the primary school that their two children attend, and are pleased to support Leadbeater. They both lost their jobs at the beginning of the pandemic and say they can understand why some locals “like to fight against power” by voting for other candidates, but they intend to remain loyal to Labour.
Rowan, however, has had enough. Despite her lifelong affiliation to the party, she has gradually grown detached from it over the years, and for the first time in her life she will vote Conservative.
The reasons are myriad and stretch back years. As a Brexit supporter, she describes with disgust an image during the referendum campaign of remain politicians and Bob Geldof “on a yacht, shouting down at fishermen while drinking champagne”. She says Jeremy Corbyn “put me off totally”, and she does not think the party represents working-class people. “They’re all lawyers or doctors,” she says. “Keir Starmer – he was a lawyer, wasn’t it? He’s not Harold Wilson, is he?”
Leadbeater began her campaign with a strong focus on local issues that are continually raised by residents: poorly kept roads, rising crime rates, litter. However, many residents lay the blame for those issues at the feet of the local Labour-led council and previous Labour MPs.
Rowan acknowledges that the council has had to make cuts as a result of government-imposed austerity, but says: “It’s Labour who have been in power here, so you blame your local council, don’t you? They’ve got the money.”
George Galloway’s entry into the race means the Labour campaign has also turned to foreign policy issues important to Muslim voters, who make up about one-fifth of the community. Rowan says she has good relationships with her Muslim neighbours, who check in on her and deliver food during religious festivals, but she dislikes this focus. “[The election is] about Heckmondwike … it’s not about Palestine and Israel. Why bring that into it?”
Other white voters cite this as a reason for not supporting Labour, such as Lisa James, 50, who worked in sales management pre-pandemic and is now a home carer. “I don’t believe that the Labour candidate’s got the interests of Batley and Spen [at heart], I think she’s more about foreign policy,” James says. She will also vote Conservative next week. “My dad would probably turn in his grave that I’ve voted Tory, but there you go.”
Another issue that the main parties have been keen to avoid becoming a focus is the controversy that erupted when a teacher at Batley grammar school was suspended after showing an image of the prophet Muhammad to a class, prompting protests outside the school gates. An investigation cleared the teacher of causing deliberate offence and lifted the suspension while apologising for distress caused and recommending further training for teaching staff.
However, according to Paul Halloran, an independent who stood for election in the constituency in 2019, it is the “most important issue in this election”. Halloran made the claim at a rally alongside the self-described free speech activist Lawrence Fox on Thursday night. A few hundred people gathered in Batley marketplace, between the now closed Batley police station and the Jo Cox House children’s centre, despite a warning from Kirklees council that it should not go ahead owing to concerns over public safety and potential disruption.
The evening passed peacefully, with occasional jeers and boos on mentions of the council and the Labour and Tory candidates’ failure to attend, although a statement was read out on behalf of Leadbeater in support of vigorous and healthy debate that remains respectful.
Watched by a handful of officers, Halloran said his aim was to “stand with the teacher”, who he claimed had been forced to flee his home with his family and feared returning to the school. The school did not respond to a request for comment for this article.
Galloway, who has previously told the Guardian that people have a “right to defend religious sensibilities and be offended by gratuitous, egregious insults”, said at the rally that the full report of the investigation into the matter should be published so that people can “work out whether or not they reached the right conclusion”.
Praising Halloran – whose 12% of the 2019 vote share he hopes to attract – as “almost miraculous”, Galloway also said he talked with Fox “all the time” because he “abhors this cancel culture” that labels people “one step to the right of you far-right and one step to the right a fascist”. In a diatribe against “liberal identity politics”, he raised claps and cheers from the crowd when he said he did not want his children to be “taught how to masturbate in school” and that there were “99 genders”.
He continued this theme at a hustings later on Thursday evening for British Muslim TV, describing Labour’s support for trans rights including self-identification as “a grotesque policy”. Leadbeater described his comments as “hugely disrespectful to trans people”.
“I’m very sorry but we can’t pick our equalities,” she told Galloway at the hustings. “I will stand side by side with my Muslim brothers and sisters, side by side by my gay friends, and my trans friends as well.”
The Tory candidate, Ryan Stephenson, did not attend the event, and in a final address to the audience Leadbeater said: “On July 2 you will wake up with a new MP for Batley and Spen. And the reality is it will either be me or the person who couldn’t even do you the courtesy of turning up tonight.”
Echoing her older sister’s famous maiden House of Commons speech, Leadbeater said: “When the circus leaves town and the cameras are all gone, we have to live here together peacefully,” and she urged constituents to elect an MP who could “bring people together, not sow division and drive them apart”.