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Labour deserves to lose Batley and Spen The Party is a victim of the identity politics it has fuelled

A shoddy performance. Credit: Ian Forsyth/Getty

A shoddy performance. Credit: Ian Forsyth/Getty


June 30, 2021   5 mins

What do the following words have in common: sleazy, tawdry and shoddy?

For a start, all three indicate low standards: sleaze in the realm of morality; tawdriness in the realm of good taste; and shoddiness in the realm of workmanship.

However, delving into the etymology reveals a less obvious connection: originally they all referred to low quality fabrics. Thus sleazy may have been a mangling of Silesia, a region from which a type of thin cloth was imported. Tawdry was a corruption of “Saint Audrey’s lace” — a cheap version of a luxury product. As for shoddy, that was the name for a heavy woollen fabric made out of old rags.  

The relevance to tomorrow’s by-election is that shoddy manufacturing began in Batley. For its time — the early 19th century — the processing technology was cutting edge. A machine that could turn a waste product into a useful and affordable material was a wonder of the age.

Today we’d recognise the shoddy industry as an example of advanced recycling. We’d also recognise its geographic concentration — in towns and villages to the south of Leeds — as an example of economic “clustering”. Indeed, the Heavy Woollen District was the Silicon Valley of its day — which makes Batley the Palo Alto of West Yorkshire.  

Sadly, there’s no doubt as to which sense of “shoddy” best applies to the campaign for tomorrow’s by-election. Tawdry is an equally fitting description. As for sleaze, there are some searching questions to be asked. For instance, how did a bogus leaflet purporting to be from the TUC in support of Labour come to be produced?

Then again, one shouldn’t have too much sympathy for the Labour Party, not after a shameful leaflet that it definitely was responsible for. This one combined allegations of “whitewashing Islamophobia” and not caring about human rights in Kashmir with a photograph of Boris Johnson meeting the Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi. 

Playing politics with the nuclear-armed tensions of the subcontinent is blatantly irresponsible — and so is trying to turn it into a domestic issue.

There is nothing wrong with British voters taking a special interest in foreign policy issues in parts of the world where they have family connections. For instance, I’m half-French and thus take a special interest in the politics of France. It’s equally understandable that someone of, say, Pakistani heritage would take a special interest in South Asian politics. 

However, to link an entire community to an overseas conflict — and politicise the association — is not acceptable. It’s especially dangerous when so many voters in Britain naturally take the other side of the conflict, for equally valid reasons.

The Labour leaflet has been widely condemned: Labour Friends of India called for it to be withdrawn; George Galloway, spotting an opportunity to stick his oar in, described the controversy as the “fruits of identity politics.” Meanwhile, Owen Jones is warning that, in the event of defeat, “supporters of the [Labour] leadership are preparing a narrative that Muslim voters are disillusioned because they’re homophobic, antisemitic bigots.”

I’ve no idea whether Jones is right about that, but identity politics is a dangerous game. Even if you play it with best of intentions you may be surprised where the ball ends up. To use a phrase popular five years ago, Labour risk “unleashing demons” in their desperate attempt to shore up support.

In all the discussion on what the different candidates think about Kashmir or Palestine, almost no thought is given to the dangerous consequences of focusing this by-election on just one part of the constituency’s population. It’s not that the Asian voters of Batley and Spen don’t matter; but how are the other 80% supposed to feel about being sidelined?

Indeed, how is any local voter — whether white, Asian or other — supposed to feel if their main concern is for where they live and its economic future? What has a party wrapped up in identity politics and foreign policy issues got to say to them? As with so many other seats in Labour’s disintegrating Red Wall, there is no real answer. 

At the outset of the by-election campaign, the conventional wisdom was that the constituency is not like Hartlepool, which Labour lost to the Tories in May. But in many ways, Batley and Spen is very much like Hartlepool — and scores of similar constituencies across the North of England. 

For all their individual distinctiveness, they share an urban-but-not-metropolitan geography that isn’t found to the same extent in most other parts of the country. They exist in such numbers in the North because of the industrial revolution, which as well as creating new cities also transformed villages into a dense patchwork of towns. 

If the industrial revolution haunts the North, it’s not because of nostalgia, but because the North is still made in its image. This may have become a clichĂ© of political reporting, but that doesn’t make it any less true. 

A clichĂ© that isn’t true, however, is that, before Brexit, these sort of seats were solidly Labour. In fact, the unbroken Red Wall that stretched from Lancashire to Hull was first breached in the 1980s. There were some seats that the Tories won back then (and later lost to Tony Blair) that not even Boris Johnson has managed to regain. 

One of them is Batley and Spen, a Conservative marginal from 1983 to 1997. Throughout this period, its MP was Elizabeth Peacock — who bore a superficial resemblance to another Tory blonde of the era, but was very much her own woman. In fact, she was well ahead of her time, being an independent-minded northerner with socially conservative but economically interventionist views. She was, for instance, a determined defender of the mining industry, not something that could be said of the prime minister at the time.

Today, the equivalent politics may differ in the details, but there’s no doubting its popular appeal, or that the Tory party of the 2020s is closer to Peacock than to Thatcher.

If you take a chart and measure people’s economic views along one axis, and their views on Authority versus Liberty on the other, then you produce four quadrants. According to research findings tweeted out by Tim Bale, a remarkable 60% of 2019 voters put themselves in the Left-Authoritarian quadrant. By way of contrast, only 2% took the opposite Right-Libertarian position. 

This doesn’t make the British public quite as Stalinist as it sounds, nor does it make them raving populists — it just means that they support the National Health Service and national borders — and expect their politicians to defend both. 

There is, however, a divergence of opinion between our MPs and the people who vote for them. Labour MPs are more socially liberal than Labour voters, while most Conservative MPs are closer to George Osborne in outlook than Elizabeth Peacock on economics. The difference is that Tories find it much easier compromising with their voters on economic issues than Labour do on social ones; for Labour, progressive beliefs about the crusade against racism, sexism, homophobia (and now transphobia) are sacred causes. These issues cannot be compromised over, and because they are sacred activists inevitably push them to further extremes. As for the Tories, all they have to do is appeal to the median voter against an absent, divided opposition, while appearing less obsessed with strange, niche obsessions. In other words, they don’t have to try very hard. 

They don’t even have to offer concrete details of how they’d propel northern towns back into the economic fast lane. The pits aren’t going to re-open and nor are the shoddy factories, and it’s a long time since anyone has expected that they would.

A competent opposition would therefore press the government on the specifics of renewal. A clever opposition would drive a wedge between our free-spending Prime Minister and his tight-fisted Chancellor. Once you divide the amount money that the Conservatives are willing to invest by the number of communities they’re promising to level-up, just how much difference can it make?

But perhaps that’s Labour’s cunning plan, to lose so many constituencies to the Tories that levelling-up fails by a process of dilution.

More likely though is that the opposition is neither competent nor clever nor cunning. Instead it’s hamstrung, a victim of its own longstanding, lazy use of identity politics. If Labour lose yet again tomorrow, they only have themselves to blame.


Peter Franklin is Associate Editor of UnHerd. He was previously a policy advisor and speechwriter on environmental and social issues.

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Jon Redman
Jon Redman
2 years ago

The really scandalous thing about the bogus Labour leaflet is not that it contained falsehoods, but that it didn’t.
It said nothing inaccurate about Labour’s beliefs, views, or opinions. Starmer was proud to take the knee – the photo of him doing so was no fake. Labour is indeed a woke, racist party now.
That fake’s power, and its cleverness, arise from the fact that it said out loud these things Labour believes, but does not want to talk about and does not want voters to remember as they go into the polling booth.
The government will be coming after every one of those insane, malignant beliefs come the next GE, and they’ll probably increase their majority as a result.

J Bryant
J Bryant
2 years ago
Reply to  Jon Redman

The government will be coming after every one of those insane, malignant beliefs come the next GE, and they’ll probably increase their majority as a result.
I hope you’re right. And, as an American, I hope the republicans pursue a similar strategy of highlighting the democrats’ extremist beliefs in the US midterms next year.

Chris Wheatley
Chris Wheatley
2 years ago
Reply to  J Bryant

In the previous post about this coming election, it was made very clear that the policy adopted by the Right was to totally ignore the propaganda of the Left, not to highlight its faults.
This strikes me as a bad thing in general but probably good in a focussed local election, where the voters are more concerned about their own local issues.

Chris Wheatley
Chris Wheatley
2 years ago
Reply to  Jon Redman

Have you noticed that nobody is arguing against Labour’s beliefs? Obviously UnHerd is not important in the greater scheme of things.

Michael Richardson
Michael Richardson
2 years ago
Reply to  Chris Wheatley

I think lots of people are arguing against Labour’s beliefs (I know several people who voted Labour in the past, but will now vote Tory or LibDem to keep Labour out). And a whole lot more may not do much arguing, but it is clear how they are voting.
Unherd, on its own, might not be very important in the greater scheme of things. but it is one of a growing number of news outlets that are providing space for positions that counter the current social-left position.

Jon Redman
Jon Redman
2 years ago
Reply to  Chris Wheatley

Well, nobody apart from the voters of Hartlepool, Chesham and Amersham, and – I imagine – Batley and Spen. And nobody apart from the 69% of the electorate who voted against Labour in 2019. Nobody apart from all those people voting Conservative, a party whose vote has gone up in each of the last six general elections. And so on.
Perhaps you meant “nobody Marxists care about”?

Last edited 2 years ago by Jon Redman
Andrew D
Andrew D
2 years ago
Reply to  Chris Wheatley

Tell us what those beliefs are, and then maybe we can argue about them.

Chris Wheatley
Chris Wheatley
2 years ago
Reply to  Andrew D

I did but it is ‘Awaiting for approval’ I will try again.
I suppose you hit the nail on the head. I quote from an article by Louise Perry in the very latest edition of The New Statesman.
‘.…the Labour Party joined this effort, accusing the Conservatives of “manufacturing” a culture war over free speech on campus in order to distract attention from government failures in the pandemic.’
And, in the same article,
The Conservatives are pursuing an anti-woke agenda because they know that it resonates with the voters.’
I did a mental double take at the latter quote because I naively assumed that the idea was to resonate with the voters. But my question is, who is answering these ridiculous comments? In my opinion, it is not about winning a at Batley. This is an attack from the Left via the back door. As learned people on UnHerd are belittling these Labour attempts, the teachers unions have taken over, the civil servants have taken over and our children are being taught things like: Churchill was evil, Britain owes every African a million dollars, if men want to be women, so let it be.
Who is fighting the battle? I think no-one is fighting, if you exclude my (and others’) verbosity.

Andrew D
Andrew D
2 years ago
Reply to  Chris Wheatley

Those quotes suggest to me that it’s Labour, not UnHerd, which is unimportant in the greater scheme of things.

Leon Wivlow
Leon Wivlow
2 years ago
Reply to  Chris Wheatley

Liz Truss stopped the Gender Recognition Act going through Parliament last summer (from memory). I think Jenrick condemned the pulling down of statues. Dowden appears to be keen on the idea of selling Channel 4. But the Tories are not doing nearly enough to counteract ‘woke’.

Stuart Y
Stuart Y
2 years ago
Reply to  Chris Wheatley

Have you noticed how “concerned”, people such as you are about the likes of UnHerd and GBN? Its almost as if you don’t approve or are nervous about all view points getting an airing. I’ve noticed this “phenomenon “, I think others have too.

Chris Wheatley
Chris Wheatley
2 years ago
Reply to  Stuart Y

Hi Stuart. First of all, I’m sorry to have upset you in some way. I have checked my posts above and they are aimed at criticism of a magazine article – not a personal attack on anyone.
However, when I joined UnHerd it was dominated by tough-talking, older people who might have been described at ‘Anarchists’ – everything modern was bad. Now over the last few weeks it has changed and more people are talking about feelings and my ideas and thoughts are anachronistic. The site needs to change. As of this mail I am leaving (not a trick, it is easy to check) and I urge you to stay. In a few weeks you will find that your ideas are fully supported and you will be able to say that you helped to control the ‘nasty’ people. The site will change towards your views if you persevere. I have never watched GB News.

Prashant Kotak
Prashant Kotak
2 years ago

I’m seeing a bunch of erudite commenters on the left pontificating on what has gone wrong with Labour and what they can and should do to stop the slide. There is however a fundamental being missed here: Labour is in trouble precisely because it made the fatal mistake of listening to these people. Any party who actually pays heed to such a cacophony is by definition not going to be able to get out of the mess it’s in. But since the party hierarchy and membership is now pretty much precision engineered to attract, nurture and promote such people (Ed Miliband comes to mind) it cannot but help listening to them.
They have somehow got themselves into a position where anyone who is enthusiastic about joining Labour should automatically be barred, on the general principle that they will almost certainly be the type of people who will further damage the party.

Jon Redman
Jon Redman
2 years ago
Reply to  Prashant Kotak

It’s quite widely understood that people who join political parties tend to be more doctrinaire than those who merely vote for them. Labour’s unique problem is that its own loony membership gets to choose the leader. So rather than the pottiness being filtered out between the grassroots and the leader’s office, it flows straight in.
Labour’s leadership electors thus choose between electing the Marxist nutter (Khorbiyn), or an empty suit (Starmer) who stands a better chance of getting elected than a Marxist nutter, but whose main virtue is that the other Marxist nutters can manipulate him. Nobody else is a plausible candidate. If someone like Broon or John Smith came along today, neither would stand a chance in a leadership election among this electorate if opposed by some Stalinist chav like Angela Rayner.
Once it becomes clear that Starmer does not in fact stand a better chance of being elected, the members will dump him and just go bald-headed for the Marxist nutter. He’s not going to get elected anyway, so why not have the leader you want, even if the MPs he leads think him a waste of space?
Nobody else has it this bad because the other parties allow their MPs to pick who should lead them. It’s as hard to see a way out of this for Labour as it is to see turkeys voting for Christmas.

Prashant Kotak
Prashant Kotak
2 years ago
Reply to  Jon Redman

Agreed. Come to think of it, wasn’t it Ed Miliband who bought in that rule change, that the membership rather than MPs would pick the leader?

Jon Redman
Jon Redman
2 years ago
Reply to  Prashant Kotak

Yes it was. It was a ridiculous unforced error. It has removed leadership ability from the list of requirements of the Labour leadership.

Fennie Strange
Fennie Strange
2 years ago
Reply to  Jon Redman

“Stalinist chav” – I love it!

John Riordan
John Riordan
2 years ago

I would much prefer Batley to be retained by Labour, because who wants to be associated with the disgusting set of events earlier this year in which Islamists got away with forcing a whole family into hiding because nobody’s allowed to commit Muslim blasphemy apparently, even if you’re not a Muslim?

If I was a politician I’d regard having to represent that lot as a punishment, not a victory.

Last edited 2 years ago by John Riordan
Leon Wivlow
Leon Wivlow
2 years ago
Reply to  John Riordan

The ‘religious arm’ of the Labour Party would certainly be a poisoned chalice were the Tories to win their vote. Here’s hoping the lovely Mr Galloway is the recipient. Quite astounding to see the ‘religious arm’ attacking Labour canvassers on Sunday. Labour are morally repugnant and deserve everything they get.

Jon Redman
Jon Redman
2 years ago
Reply to  Leon Wivlow

With luck Galloway will get the Islamofascists and Labour will get the idlers and the grievance lobby, giving the Conservatives a majority.

Samir Iker
Samir Iker
2 years ago

The reference to Kashmir is interesting, because it reveals a lot about the true nature of the “liberal”, “tolerant” camp.

Because when they talk about human rights and Kashmir, they are not talking about the minority Hindu community that was murdered, raped and exterminated from the valley, driven out by their own “peaceful” neighbors who then grabbed Hindu land and houses.
Nor do they talk about the people of Jammu and Ladakh who want to integrate with the rest of India, instead of being dominated by medieval religious fundamentalists.

No, what they care about is the Kashmiri majority group which is ferociously backward, bigoted and violent, and coincidentally also happens to be a Labour voting block in UK.

Hilarious though that these same people also moan about Israeli “human right” abuses. The Palestinians are lucky the Israelis don’t treat them like the Kashmiri peacefuls treated their minorities.

Last edited 2 years ago by Samir Iker
William Cameron
William Cameron
2 years ago

Labour is totally hypocritical. To get elected in Batley it needs the Muslim vote. That is by definition a vote which in large measure opposes LBGT and homosexuality.

Christopher Chantrill
Christopher Chantrill
2 years ago

When you think about it, over/under politics, with educated tossers and rich kids like Clement Attlee “representing” first the workers and now the helpless victims of racism-sexism-homophobia, has had a pretty good run.
But suppose ordinary Commoners, White Van men, and the like become a majority?
As Rosalind said many moons ago in the Forest of Arden: “not to be endured!” Bless her heart.

Jon Redman
Jon Redman
2 years ago

It’s a good point Chris. Identity politics proceeds from the assumption that. if you tell minorities that all they are is black and everything’s Whitey’s fault so vote Labour, Whitey won’t notice the insults, and will carry on obediently voting Labour too.
Of course, if Whitey decides to adopt the tenets of IdPol and vote along racial lines as well, the wheels fall off. At best you start to lose seats like Hartlepool, and at worst, you end up facing opponents who are as deranged as you are.
I don’t think we’ll ever elect a fascist party in the UK because we tend to laugh at fascists, but I wouldn’t be so sure about Italy, Spain or some of the Baltics.

Mark Cole
Mark Cole
2 years ago

I love the thought of Batley as the Palo Alto of Yorkshire….could signal a new recycling heritage in electronic chips. Anyway to the point, the Tories should have made more of the shameful and false leaflets. What is more concerning is the underlying sentiment behind these dirty tricks and in particular the insult to the Hindu Indians and the petrol this throws on the fire of local race relations; the region has a history of Indians and Pakistanis having massed fights on the moors. Further Labour seems to be pushing a blanket endorsement of extreme muslim activity from threatening to behead an innocent white christian school teacher (so far no-one prosecuted for inciting violence and racial/religious hatred) to abusing, threaten violence to random jews. I am not a supporter of Netanyahus aggressive stance and land grab but perhaps Arabs/Palestinians might learn from Ghandi. Its seems that the islamist problem, along with the continued huge public sector defined pension benefit costs (and stagnant un productive culture) are two areas this Government refuses to address