Richard North, 02/07/2021  

Of the many pictures published in the media of the Batley and Spen constituency over the next few days, I'll warrant that none will in any way look like the scene above. This, I took yesterday from the northern edge of the constituency, looking south, with Batley nestling in the valley below. Emley Moor TV mast is in the distance (poking up above the bush on the left).

The picture is actually taken from the run into Leeds Road, headed towards Birstall and it reminds me why we moved to this district many years ago. This was the view on my drive home from work each day, underlining the essential rural nature of the area, and its inherent beauty.

The media may have you believe that Batley is a gritty northern town, replete with dark Satanic mills. But this is West Yorkshire: small, scattered towns surrounded by countryside to die for. Batley is one of those towns but there are others in the constituency. This is Spen Valley as well as Batley.

Driving round the constituency yesterday, what struck me was how well the place looked. I visited the small estate just outside Birstall in which we lived as a family in the early 70s. The estate looked clean and well-kept, and there were many more like it. There was a lot of new development – good quality housing that shrieks "Tory" at you.

As to the campaign, although we've being seeing a lot of "Batley" in the media recently, in the outer reaches of the constituency you would be hard put to realise that there was an election on.

As you move closer to Batley, you start to see the posters. But what was surprising was the number of Lib-Dem posters, more so than Tory, which were well in evidence. There was next to no sign of the Galloway campaign outside Batley centre, and even Leadbeater was nigh-on invisible.

By rights, therefore, this is a classic "red wall" seat that should be on its way to becoming Tory. It has much in common with Dennis Skinner's seat in Bolsover, where the decline in heavy industry and the gradual gentrification of the area has turned a once-staunch Labour seat into a Tory seat since the 2019 general election.

Thus, it is no great stretch to predict a Tory victory this time round. This is definitely the direction of travel and is arguably the case that, but for the intervention of Paul Halloran standing as an independent under the "Heavy Woollen District" label in the general, the Tories would already have the seat.

Then, while Labour's Tracy Brabin gained 22,594 votes to take the seat, against Tory Mark Brookes, who took 19,069 votes, Halloran took 6,432 – well over twice the difference between the two lead candidates. There was also a Brexit candidate, who took 1,678 votes.

But, for all the likelihood that the Tories will finally reclaim the seat – having held it from 1983 (the first election after the constituency had been created) to 1997 – there are several factors which militate against this being a foregone conclusion.

To identify one factor which may play a part, we can turn to the recent Chesham and Amersham by-election where, against all expectations, the Lib-Dems took the seat, confirming once again my thesis that Conservative and Liberal/Lib-Dem votes are, under certain circumstances, interchangeable.

In respect of the Chesham and Amersham by-election, Tory analysists were quick to blame special factors for their loss, such as HS2 and the relaxation of planning restrictions. However, the Lib-Dem winner, Sarah Green, would beg to differ.

"The overarching theme", Green says, "was people feeling taken for granted, being ignored. With some people it was about Boris himself, with others the phrase was 'snouts in a trough'. One of our canvassers heard a conversation where someone said: 'All you need is Boris Johnson’s mobile phone number and you’re sorted'".

Green's impression was that the dissatisfaction with the Conservative party, and the Conservative government, had many layers to it. Her favourite phrase was "it's just not cricket" – the idea that this is not a Conservative party they associate themselves with.

Daisy Cooper, who won St Albans from the Conservatives and campaigned frequently for Green, agreed with this verdict. "The Tories are trying to paint this as a referendum on HS2 because it's convenient for them to do that. The reality is, in most places HS2 didn't come up a great deal, and when it did it was about a lack of consultation, an irritation that no one is listening".

"The phrase that summed it up", says Cooper, "was: 'We're getting fed up with this'. Time and time again on the doorstep, people said they felt taken for granted. You could ask why and everyone would have a different reason".

Cooper also says she heard frequent criticism of Johnson from traditional Conservative voters: "They wouldn't use words like nationalistic or populist; they'd say things like, 'He’s an embarrassment, isn't he?' I felt it very much about character".

Since then, the criticism may have broadened and intensified, with what I have labelled the "Hancock effect". This may be of limited impact or it might reflect in a stay-at-home Tory rebellion or a switch to the Lib-Dems, as with Chesham and Amersham.

As to the Labour vote, the intervention of Galloway has some pundits predicting that he will walk away with the Muslim vote, and perhaps some of the white Labour-supporting vote. Certainly, Galloway seems to think that will happen, making the contest a "two horse race" between him and the Conservatives.

Nevertheless, there are several reasons for believing that Galloway may be wrong in his estimation. In his most recent electoral success, in West Bradford in 2012, his appeal was almost entirely to a community of Kashmiri origin, which formed the majority in the constituency.

In Batley and Spen, however, the Muslims are in the minority, of which the Kashmiris are the smaller part. As I have written earlier the larger part comprises Indians from the Vohra (sometimes called Vohora) community in Gujurat.

Interestingly, I recorded Labour publishing a leaflet showing Johnson talking to Indian prime minister Narendra Modi, alongside the message: "Don’t risk a Tory MP who is not on your side".

This, I thought, could have been a spectacular own goal but, on the other hand, the Vohra in Gujurat and have been involved a number of riots, which have sparked retaliatory killings of members of their communities. And, in the latest episode in 2002, Gujarat Chief Minister Narenda Modi was implicated in organising the revenge killings. Whether unwittingly or not, Labour may have done just the right thing to keep Batley's Indians on-side.

Indeed, there are some small hints that the Indians are sticking with Labour – giving the party a 12 percent bonus. And, in the absence of any significant drift of the white Labour vote to Galloway, he might be expected to perform relatively poorly. On the other hand, given the highly publicised treatment meted out to Leadbeater, she may well attract a sympathy vote from Labour supporters who might otherwise have stayed at home.

A great deal, therefore, depends on the turnout and, in early news, we learn that this is predicted to be about 70 percent, higher than in the general election.

On the face of it, a high turnout favours Labour but, despite this, the Labour camp is reported by the BBC as being "very gloomy", despite the possibility of a sympathy vote. Another report has activists at the count being "quietly confident".

Crucially, though, the outcome isn't entirely in the hands of Labour voters. The result very much depends on the behaviour of the Tory vote. If they stay at home or shift to the Lib-Dems, then Labour could still win the election. And Labour won't have been canvassing in the Tory areas so they will have no feel for which way the Tory vote will jump.

All of this suggests that the result could, in theory, go any which way. By rights, the seat should go Tory – we will know some time after 5am, which means that most of you will know the outcome by the time you read this piece.

This side of the declaration, I would say that it depends on the "Hancock effect" and whether the Labour voters turn out to support their candidate. Should they perform, I don't think Galloway will be a factor. If I was asked to call the result, I would decline. But, although the odds favour the Tories, I would not rule out a narrow Labour win, with the Tories and Lib-Dems battling for second place.

Also published on Turbulent Times.

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