A Truly Momentous By-Election | Dr. Rakib Ehsan
The Batley & Spen by-election this week marked yet another fascinating moment in our post-Brexit politics.
While Labour managed to cling onto the seat, its majority was slashed from 3,525 to a mere 323 votes. The party opportunistically exploited subcontinental communal divisions by taking aim at the Conservative Party’s diplomatic ties with the Modi-led Indian government, in the hope of shoring up its British Pakistani support in the constituency. While this was seen as a useful ploy in this corner of West Yorkshire, it may have negative consequences for Labour in places where there is a high presence of British Indian Hindus – such as west London and Leicester. Playing divide-and-rule politics with South Asian communities is a risky game.
While it is normal for ruling parties to lose by-elections, this was a bitter blow for the Conservatives – regardless of what party spokespeople say. Its crushing defeat at the hands of the Liberal Democrats in the Chesham & Amersham by-election, would have been easier to take if it was able to gain this Brexit-voting Northern English seat from Labour. While the Conservatives enjoy a comfortable lead over Labour in the national polls, both by-election results will give the governing party much food for thought. It cannot simply expect Labour-held, pro-Leave constituencies to fall into their lap in the post-Brexit era.
What could make our post-Brexit politics all the more fascinating, is the potential emergence of a left-wing ‘anti-woke’ party in the shape of the Workers Party of Britain (WPB). The party leader, political maverick and perennial provocateur George Galloway, delivered a noteworthy performance at the ballot box – winning an impressive 22 per cent of the vote. Palestine and Kashmir are salient foreign-policy issues for many British Muslim voters – and Galloway is very much in line with them over these geopolitical conflicts and territorial disputes. He has also spoken robustly against anti-Muslim prejudice in British society.
But it would be a mistake to think that Galloway’s electoral popularity was confined to British Muslim voters in this by-election. His socially traditional pitch and push-back against the influential LGBT lobby and radical transgenderism, does not only have the potential to win over British Muslims – but also working-class, white ‘cultural conservatives’. His reputation for being a left-wing, eurosceptic firebrand means he can gain traction with ‘Old Labour’ Brexiteers – the kind of voters that Labour has lost and the Tories hope to gain in greater numbers. The Conservative strategy of running a safe ‘submarine’ campaign, in the hope that a Labour-WPB tussle would gift them victory, backfired spectacularly. Complacency is very much the Devil’s word.
All things considered, there is much food for thought for the two major parties. The Tories are guilty of taking working-class Northern English voters for granted – including those who have previously voted for minor parties and hold anti-establishment sentiments. As for Labour – while it just held onto Batley & Spen, its stoking of community tensions may haunt them further down the line. And the possible emergence of a culturally conservative left-wing alternative, threatens to further complicate the electoral landscape for Starmer and his party.
And who said British politics was dull and unexciting?
Dr Rakib Ehsan is an independent expert in social relations and institutional trust. His Twitter: @rakibehsan