Why the Batley and Spen by-election may not be a 'red wall' battleground like Hartlepool

The forthcoming Batley and Spen by-election will make the constituency a political battleground, but talk of a ‘red wall’ seat turning blue may be a rabbit hole. John Blow reports.

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 a date to be determined after Labour and Co-op’s Tracy Brabin stood down as MP when this month she won her new role as the Mayor of West Yorkshire.

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If the by-election takes place this summer as expected, it’ll inevitably be in the shadow of the fifth anniversary of Jo Cox MP’s death. Her murder in June 2016 sparked the last by-election, won by Brabin, who kept the seat in 2017, and even more narrowly so in 2019.

Batley town centre, part of the constituency heading for a by-election. Picture: JIm Fitton.

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 over 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.

“So if people in politics really want to understand and listen to what people are concerned about, having a label like that is disrespectful of local people.”

She continues: “It is a politically aware constituency, because it has elected a Conservative MP in the past [in 1983, when it was 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.”

One index of that difference is the levels of social deprivation, with figures from Kirklees Council area committee profiles in 2019 revealing a big gap.

In the Spen Valley, home to around 55,000 people in areas such as Cleckheaton, Gomersal, Heckmondwike and Liversedge, the number of people then living in the most deprived neighbourhoods was 1,379, or 2.5 per cent of the population compared to 12.2 in Kirklees and 9.9 in England.

In Batley, Birstall and Birkenshaw, which had a reported population of 56,870, the number living in the most deprived areas was 8,702 -15.6 per cent.

So in Batley, the Government may come to regret that the town hasn’t been given a share of the £3.6bn Towns Fund as part of its so-called “levelling-up” agenda (it was not on the list of 101 towns which have submitted proposals).

But in the more rural Spen, a pressing issue for locals is more 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.

The Government says the Planning Reform Bill will “simplify and modernise the system”.

What the Conservatives also might not have bargained on was Jo Cox’s sister possibly becoming Labour’s contestant, and the party is expected to choose its candidate on Sunday (meanwhile, the Tories announced last night that Leeds councillor Ryan Stephenson would be its choice).

Kim Leadbeater MBE, a local campaigner and an ambassador for the Jo Cox Foundation, said in a statement that she would be “honoured” to “give the people of Batley & Spen the opportunity to put their trust in me”.

She added: “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 says: “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.

“We have recently seen the increase in devolved powers to West Yorkshire as a whole with the election of Tracy Brabin as the area’s first Metro Mayor.

“This unlocks funding and support that our constituency has not previously had access to. I would certainly want to see our new MP looking to develop as much opportunity from that as possible. But first and foremost I want to see our new MP in our towns, in our communities, and putting Batley and Spen first.”

Paul Halloran was born and raised in the constituency and came third in the 2019 general election behind Brabin and Conservative Mark Brooks. He took 6,432 votes for the Heavy Woollen District Independents on a night when Brabin’s majority had slid from almost 9,000 in 2017 to 3,525 just two years later.

However, 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”.

Halloran is now “in discussions with various interested parties” about the upcoming election but has not yet made a decision, despite a petition calling for him to be the Conservative candidate (which “hasn’t been created, nor is administered, by me”).

“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 says. “It’s not about party politics it’s about doing the best for Batley and Spen.”

He adds: “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.”

A Government spokesperson said: “The Planning Reform Bill will simplify and modernise the system. It will establish a clear set of rules – from where communities want homes to be built, to the high design and environmental standards that must be met.”

“The current planning system has a very poor record on community engagement - only around three per cent of local people respond to planning applications and in local plan consultations engagement can fall to less than one per cent.

"Just half of councils have a local plan, leaving communities exposed. Our reforms will give communities a greater voice from the start of the planning process by making planning much more straightforward and accessible.”