Labour’s victory in Batley & Spen has had the outsize effect on the political narrative that wins by a couple of hundred votes always do. But you can be sure the party noticed how close George Galloway came to handing this safe seat to the Conservatives.
Although his new Workers’ Party of Great Britain doesn’t seem to have quite the pulling power that Respect used to, a strong third place suggests that the danger is real – and he might try playing spoiler again at the general election.
Perhaps that’s why Naz Shah, Labour’s ‘Shadow Minister for Community Cohesion’, used the debate on the Police, Crime, Sentencing, and Courts Bill to call for what sounds very much like a blasphemy law.
Her logic is if the Government is introducing stringent criminal penalties for vandalising statues, it ought to do the same for people who “defame, slander or abuse” religious figures. If not, Shah suggests, ministers risk erecting “a hierarchy of sentiments”.
One might argue – indeed, I have – that the PCSC Bill is at least as much about public order as public feeling. Shah has no time for that:
“To those who say it is just a cartoon, I will not say, “It’s only a statue”, because I understand the strength of British feeling when it comes to our history, our culture and our identity. It is not just a cartoon and they are not just statues. They represent, symbolise and mean so much more to us as human beings.”
That’s the Shadow Minister for Community Cohesion seeming to suggest that drawing a picture of Mohammed is not a legitimate act by people who can “debate, discuss, disagree and even respectfully and vehemently oppose” a religious figure, but the public-order equivalent of actual vandalism.
Is that actually Labour’s position? It’s not just an academic question. As of a couple of weeks ago, at least, a teacher who showed cartoons of Mohammed in class was still in hiding. How much help can he expect from his new Labour MP?
We must hope that Kim Leadbetter is as prepared to face down her own front bench as she was the thugs on the by-election campaign trail – even if this means continuing to antagonise the voters who backed Galloway and thus nearly handed the seat to the Tories.