All eyes on Batley and Spen as by-election battle hots up
It could be a pub quiz question one day, says Baroness Kath Pinnock: “Which constituency has had five different Parliamentary elections in six years?”
That would be Batley and Spen, whose seat in the House of Commons will again be hotly contested on July 1 after Labour’s Tracy Brabin stood down as MP when earlier this month she won her new role as the Mayor of West Yorkshire.
The by-election will be in the shadow of the fifth anniversary of the death of former Batley and Spen MP Jo Cox. Her murder in June 2016 sparked the last by-election, won by Ms Brabin, who kept the seat in 2017, and even more narrowly so in 2019.
In 2016, various parties including the Conservatives did not put forward a candidate as a mark of respect. This time, though, they’ll be eyeing it as another prize for their 80-seat majority after a strong local elections performance this month, when they celebrated the bonus of a new Tory MP for Hartlepool in Jill Mortimer - the latest in a series of Northern and traditionally Labour seats turning blue in recent years.
What they might not have bargained on, though, is how varied the Batley and Spen constituency actually is, says Baroness Pinnock, who has been a Liberal Democrat councillor in the Cleckheaton ward of Kirklees Council since 1987 and was appointed to the House of Lords in September 2014 as a Life Peer.
Baroness Pinnock says: “I do not like the categorisation of ‘red wall’. I think that’s a meaningless label to put on any constituency and disregards individual and local perceptions and issues.”
She continues: “It is a politically aware constituency, because it has elected a Conservative MP in the past (in 1983, after new boundaries were created), Elizabeth Peacock, who then lost the seat in ‘97 to Labour.
"So, you know, it is always an interesting seat and where people are politically aware and there are a huge variety of different views and issues across the constituency. Batley is a very different place from the Spen Valley, for instance. So just to think of it as one unit, I think, will lead people down a rabbit hole.”
In Batley, which has areas of social deprivation, the Government may come to regret that it hasn’t been given a share of the £3.6 billion Towns Fund as part of its so-called “levelling-up” agenda.
But in the more rural Spen, a pressing issue for locals is likely to be proposed new planning laws.
“[It’s the] Conservatives being on the side of developers, not on the side of people, and that will be resented and opposed, I think, by lots of people,” says Baroness Pinnock.
What the Conservatives also might not have bargained on was Jo Cox’s sister becoming Labour’s candidate for the election. Kim Leadbeater, a campaigner, lives locally and is an ambassador for the Jo Cox Foundation.
Speaking earlier this month when she announced her intention to stand in the Labour contest, she said: “The truth is, I have never really seen myself as a political animal, but I care deeply about the area where I was born and have always lived, and where the people are second to none.”
This could work in her favour. Constituents may want one of their own to represent them, or at least to be a visible part of their communities once they take office, and may be resistant to a “parachuted” candidate.
Andrew Marsden, a lawyer at West Yorkshire-based Brearleys Solicitors, was for many years the chairman of the Batley Business Association and remains a member, so has got to know various politicians.
He said: “Batley and Spen has a long history of being represented by MPs who have believed in and championed the local community. MPs who were always visible and accessible within the constituency.
"National politics are important, they control our everyday lives, but we must not lose sight of what remains important on a local level. What is important to the people who live in this area.
“Our new MP must be somebody who is determined to work from the grassroots up. Somebody who is going to roll their sleeves up and fight for the constituency.
"The potential in this area across commerce, creative industry, hospitality, and more, is significant, and must be supported and developed.”
Paul Halloran was born and raised in the constituency and came third in the 2019 general election behind Ms Brabin and Conservative Mark Brooks. He took 6,432 votes for the Heavy Woollen District Independents on a night when Ms Brabin’s majority had slid from almost 9,000 in 2017 to 3,525 just two years on.
But Mr Halloran believes the idea that he split the Conservative vote is a “misconception”, as he had “disenfranchised Labour voters promising me their vote” alongside “plenty of people who told me they never vote as they don’t trust politicians”.
He is now “in discussions with various interested parties” about the upcoming by-election but has not yet made a decision.
“My stance is very clear, I will talk to anyone who wants to see our area be the place it can and should be,” he said.
“It’s not about party politics, it’s about doing the best for Batley and Spen.”
He added: “Who is the best person to represent Batley and Spen right now?
“It’s a person who doesn’t have an eye on stepping up the political career ladder but who just wants to deliver for every single person living in the constituency.
“Batley and Spen has been in the spotlight a lot. Very sadly at times, horrible things have taken place.
“But we need to look forward and to the future because this is a proud area with fantastic people who can all make a difference together, through frank, open and honest dialogue.
“National eyes are upon us and all of us in Batley and Spen are wise enough to never allow ourselves to be played as political pawns in the forthcoming games the by-election may bring.
“We will make the right decisions for our area together.”