I wonder which will be remembered longest; the outcome of the Batley and Spen byelection, or the manner in which it was conducted? Labour won the seat by a narrow margin of 323 votes, but the interventions of div`isive veteran George Galloway, who came third with 8,264 votes, turned the complex northern brew toxic. His campaign stoked homophobic sentiment – Galloway described himself as a “straight white man with six children” who would not stand “for the BBC trying to teach our young children that there are 99 genders” – and has been mired in accusations of intimidation. Though shocking, this came as little surprise to me.
I remember meeting Galloway in person in 2005 at a public meeting to discuss the Labor government’s identity card legislation. The temperature had been entirely civil; Tony Benn praised Dominic Grieve, saying “we libertarians meet around the back”. Then the doors to the hall swung open and the recently triumphant east London MP marched in, flanked by his many supporters. Galloway took to the stage with a lengthy rant about every Middle Eastern conflict, yet had precious few words on the topic of the event. Sharing my discomfort, Benn whispered in my ear: “I know what you’re thinking”.
Galloway has form for misogyny, having made offensive comments about forced marriage in the hateful campaign he ran against Naz Shah in Bradford West in 2015, and having speculated that sex assault allegations made against Julian Assange were merely “bad sexual etiquette”. In his latest campaign, the dexterous shapeshifter has made hay from a nasty dispute about images of the prophet being shown in a classroom, one minute affirming people’s “right to defend religious sensibilities” and the next sidling up to self-styled “free speech activist” Lawrence Fox.
Por supuesto, the Conservatives are virtuosos of such dog-whistle politics. Their attacks on Sadiq Khan have been consistently Islamophobic. En 2019, I wrote about a Tory London candidate who was stoking anti-Muslim sentiment to win votes. In West Yorkshire earlier this year, a local election leaflet warned: “Labour will take your vote for granted whilst taking the knee.” It may be hard to keep clean in the trenches and harder still to fight for human rights, equality and against corruption amid the deliberate stoking of culture wars. Todavía, this must surely be Labour’s path.
Congratulations to Kim Leadbeater, who showed admirable physical and moral courage for even entering the fray in the constituency in which her sister was murdered just five years ago; even more so for withstanding abuse with dignity. Pero Labour’s leaflet featuring Boris Johnson shaking hands with Indian premier Narendra Modi was a mistake for which the party must apologise. I hold no brief for the rightwing Hindu nationalist whose catastrophic pandemic mismanagement, misogyny and Islamophobia I find indefensible. But what was this photo and its caption, “the risk of voting for anyone but Labour is clear”, supposed to indicate? That a Labour prime minister or foreign secretary would never shake such a hand or attempt to negotiate trade, or peace, or a shamefully belated vaccine patent waiver with one of the largest nations in the global south? Pakistan has joined others co-sponsoring the Indian and South African proposal for a waiver at the WTO, uniting the often rival nations against British and EU obstruction.
There are many photographs of Johnson shaking hands with the former prime minister of Israel, Benjamin Netanyahu. Is it now to be acceptable to use these on leaflets in areas with significant Muslim communities smarting from current events in Israel and Palestine? How could that do anything other than assume people vote solely on communal lines and make already vulnerable minorities even more afraid? There is no point in proclaiming zero tolerance for antisemitism and all forms of racism among party members if Labour undermines attempts at trying to explain the nuances of modern racism and stereotyping come election time. Whether Dominic Cummings at Barnard Castle or Matt Hancock in the office, haven’t the Tories taught us something about the infinite dangers of double standards?
It is one thing to take foreign policy positions and argue for them, even during domestic elections, if that is what voters want to hear. I suspect the world has been now so shrunken by the pandemic, climate catastrophe and the legacy of empire that while transforming people’s health, housing, educación, care and livelihoods remain the priority, it is probably unrealistic to separate the international from the domestic in politics anywhere. Yet if the ultimate ambition is for peace over there, unity over here and greater justice everywhere, this must be demonstrated in Labour’s campaigning as well as its policies.
Let the Battle for Batley of 2021 be remembered as a nadir in national discourse from which we learned and recovered, if only in the Labour party. De lo contrario, what does it stand for?