Threats, smears, homophobia & assaults against Labour campaign
NOTE: An edited version of the article below was published by the i newspaper on 2 July 2021 under the headline: I was assaulted 100 times when I stood to be an MP – Batley & Spen should be a wake-up call for politicians. Never again should we see candidates and activists assaulted
By Peter Tatchell
The violence, harassment and intimidation during the Batley and Spen by-election is the worst in any UK election since I fought the Bermondsey campaign for Labour in 1983. Many commentators described that election 38 years ago as the dirtiest, most violent and homophobic in the post-war period.
In the run up to the vote, I was demonised by rival parties on account of my Australian origins, left-wing policies and support for LGBT+ rights. The constituency was plastered with three-foot high homophobic, far right and xenophobic graffiti. Anonymous leaflets giving my home address and phone number, inviting the public to have a go, were mass circulated. This led to 30 attacks on my flat, including an arson attempt and bricks and bottles through the windows. I was assaulted over 100 times while canvassing, including being punched, kicked, spat at and having dogs set on me. There were two attempts by van drivers to run me down. A bullet was shoved through my letterbox in the dead of night. It was like living in a conflict zone. No wonder I was defeated.
The public revulsion and remorse at what happened to me led most people to assume that it could never happen again. Alas, nearly four decades later in Batley and Spen, it has.
Labour activists there were pelted with eggs, pushed and kicked on the ground. They were subjected to homophobic insults, with shouts of “bondu”, a Punjabi word for gay, in efforts to intimidate them. Labour posters were defaced or ripped down.
Kim Leadbeater, the Labour candidate, was personally abused, harassed and chased over her support for LGBT+ education in schools, with false claims that children would be taught about anal sex and masturbation. Many of the assailants and smear spreaders were said to be young male Muslims.
This prompted the brightest, most positive moment in an otherwise ugly campaign. A group of Muslim women in Batley & Spen bravely called out aggression and intimidation by what they called a ‘loud minority’ of unrepresentative Muslim men. They berated “the same faces that have plagued our area as ‘community leaders’ for many years,” saying they do not represent most Muslim people. “Misogynism and mob mentality have no place in any decent community,” they wrote.
On the downside, these women had to hide their identities, fearing violent retaliation from other Muslims. Something is seriously wrong when sexism and threats force Muslim women to remain anonymous.
Why did this election campaign sink so low? Ever since the Brexit referendum, we’ve witnessed a coarsening of public life and the rise of bar-room politics. This has been compounded by the vulgarity and viciousness of social media seeping into political campaigns. On top of that we had local activists who wanted to give Keir Starmer a bloody nose and were willing to play rough and exploit communal politics to achieve that result.
Despite these provocations, the Labour candidate stayed calm, polite and stuck to her principles, studiously avoiding personal attacks. She was duly rewarded with victory, albeit a very narrow one.
What now? Batley and Spen, like Bermondsey before, is a wake up call. Political parties and candidates should be required to sign up to a code of election conduct. Instead of weakening the power of the Electoral Commission, as the government intends, its powers of enforcement and punishment for violations of election standards should be strengthened. Parties and the media should agree to shun those who play dirty. Too much is at stake to risk a repeat of Batley and Spen.