The Brexit Party wasn’t a force in Batley and Spen at the last general election – winning only three per cent of the vote, compared to its 26 per cent in Hartlepool. Nonetheless, the constituency didn’t host a straightforward contest between the two main parties – or even, if you count the Liberal Democrats in, three.
The Heavy Woollen District Independents gained a 12 per cent share – or, if you want to put it another way, the best part of 6500 votes. Labour’s majority was only 3,535.
The party has a representative on Kirkless District Council – Aleks Lukic, previously the Chairman of UKIP’s Dewsbury, Batley and Spen branch, who stood for that party in Batley & Spen in the 2015 general election.
That fact is made easier to find on the net by a page that Lukic has put up. “Due to increased media attention for the…by-election,” he writes, “I am publishing this page to make it easier to find factual information about the Heavy Woollen District Independents”.
Lukic says that he grew disillusioned with UKIP, stood as an independent candidate in the 2017 general election, and sets out four values that the party stands for: Shelter and security, Commerce and amenities, Future generations and Localism & culture.
He describes the last as “promotion of a unifying shared British identity, the use of the English language across the district and the works of artists from all the district’s communities”.
The next paragraph continues: “we take the position that religious and cultural beliefs must remain open to challenge and debate in a democratic society”.
But you may not need to read that far to get the point. In his introduction, Lukic writes: “we pride ourselves on not shying away from sensitive issues that other local politicians prefer not to discuss”.
What might these sensitive issues be – and are there any particular religious and cultural beliefs that should be open to challenge? A list of three party achievements gives us a clue.
The first two are electoral – Lukic’s own election to the Dewsbury East ward, and that 12 per cent of the vote in the 2019 election. The third is “a petition against Kirklees Council’s use of meat from non-stun slaughter signed by thousands of residents”.
This is clearly a reference to Halal meat: according to the House of Commons Library, over 20,000 people in the seat, 19 per cent of the population, is Muslim.
On the one hand, that’s people, not voters, which takes down the number of those eligible to vote. On the other, that estimate is based on the 2011 census, and so is ten years out of date – which given the relatively high Muslim birth rate will push that number back up.
Lukic says that his party “condemn[s] hatred against any religion or race without exception” and that he was “shocked by the tragedy of Jo Cox’s murder at the hands of a far right extremist”.
All of which is a reminder that this could be a more turbulent by-election than Hartlepool’s – or the other contest due to take place, down south in Chesham & Amersham.
The seat was in the news when Cox was horribly murdered by Thomas Mair, who declared in court that “my name is death to traitors, freedom for Britain”, and was linked to neo-fascist organisations.
And it made the front pages again recently when a teacher at Batley Grammar School was suspended for showing cartoons of Mohammed to pupils during a lesson.
The barrister-led investigation into the incident – two other teachers at the school are reportedly being investigated, though neither has apparently been suspended – is apparently “unlikely to report before the end of this month”.
No date has yet been set for the by-election, caused by Tracy Brabin standing down from the Commons in the wake of her election last week as West Yorkshire’s first mayor, but the timing is awkward – at least, for the main political parties.
Neither will want the report to appear during the campaign, and it isn’t clear whether or not the Heavy Woollen District Independents will stand. One date floated for the poll is July 22nd.
It was estimated in the wake of the 2017 election that only eleven per cent of Muslims nationally voted Conservative. The total is unlikely to have changed much two years later. One Tory source told ConHome that “to win the by-election, we need at least 20 per cent”.
That looks like rather a tall order. Perhaps surprisingly, Batley & Span wasn’t on the Muslim Council of Britain’s list of 31 seats at the last election in which Muslim voters could have “high” or “medium” impact.
However those voters did or didn’t vote, 21 of those 31 constituencies are now Tory-held: Kensington, Dudley North, Keighley, Chipping Barnet, Hendon, Peterborough, Pendle, Colne Valley, Finchley & Golders Green, Harrow East, Dewsbury, Cities of London and Westminster, Watford, Chingford & Wood Green, Crawley, Bolton North-East, Wolverhampton South-West, Reading East, Southampton Itchen, Thurrock and Stoke-on-Trent South.
The Conservative Muslim Forum has a table which ranks constituencies by their percentage of Muslim residents, apparently using the Commons Library figures for its calculations.
Batley and Spen has the 30th largest proportion and, if won by the Party, would be its “most Muslim seat” – pipping Dewsbury, which has the 32nd largest, at the post.
Kim Leadbeater, Jo Cox’s sister, has told the Batley and Birstall News that she wants to be Labour’s candidate – thus putting public pressure on the party nationally to shortlist her, which was presumably her intention.
The Tory selection hasn’t yet taken place – and there is no date yet for the publication of Professor Swaran Preet Singh’s independent investigation into discrimination within the Conservative Party, whose call for evidence was published on this site in October.
That’s a second report timing dilemma. As we say, none of the main parties will want the Batley Grammar report upsetting apple carts during the campaign.
Nor will the Party powers-that-be want its candidate exposed to questions about Professor Singh’s conclusions – which are unlikely to be flattering.