As you are likely aware, I became the MP for Batley and Spen in the most tragic of circumstances, when my predecessor Jo Cox was killed.
The words ‘More in Common’ will be rightly forever associated with Jo, and through her, Batley and Spen. Building unity, as well as pride and a sense of belonging, has remained the calling of many locally.
From our council and charities to businesses and the ‘More in Common’ organisation itself, we have all played our part in trying to bring people together and to push back against the hatred that killed her.
I wish I could report that everything has gone smoothly in recent years, but that would not be a fair representation of the truth.
In the by-election that I stood in in 2016, the other major political parties sensitively stood aside due to the circumstances in which it came about.
Sadly, not everyone felt they could do the same and I was faced with a smattering of independents and obscure parties, including some, such as the BNP and Liberty GB, which were connected to the far right. Nasty allegations flew about with an overwhelming focus on ‘them and us’. It was a narrative aimed at dividing white British and British-Pakistani, predominately Muslim communities.
The Labour party won the by-election convincingly and I knew then I must focus on building bridges and bringing people together. For all the success that we have had – and I will explore some of that later on in this chapter– there have been setbacks.
A small but seemingly obsessed group on social media incessantly shared pictures of me with members of the British-Pakistani community with negative connotations, usually insinuating that I was ‘beholden’ to one group or another while the actions of the Labour-controlled council were treated with conspiratorial suspicion.
Social media and local community groups on social media became no-go areas with bitter arguments being played out on local forums and I found myself blocking more and more people from social media pages for racism. Sadly, this also meant those constituents who wanted to connect to their MP chose to stay silent to avoid the inevitable pile-on.
Some might feel that this has to be accepted as part of the job, as the normal ‘cut and thrust’ of politics and that abuse isn’t limited to one particular party or only women. But that was not how it felt here. It felt planned and organised, not just a few disgruntled individuals behind a keyboard, but a connected group with a unified intent to disrupt and sow division.
Fast forward to the 2019 general election and a local independent candidate stepped forward and the individuals on social media now had someone to coalesce around. Hustings changed from being robust to uncomfortable, and sharp ‘no-thank yous’ on doorsteps were too often replaced by hissed insults, abuse and slammed doors.
Members of the community, particularly the Muslim community, were worried about the campaign and the darkening of the political debate coming out of it.
While Labour held the seat, my majority was slashed from nearly 10,000 to little over 3,000 votes. By the standards of independents running in general elections, the independentdid surprisingly well, receiving nearly 6,500 votes. Every single one of those voters had found something to get behind in his divisive manifesto and ‘them and us’ approach.
In the face of those intent on dividing us, on setting groups of people apart to vilify and blame for the troubles in their own lives, it can be hard to keep optimistic and focused on a brighter future. When we win, when for example hundreds of women from across my community came together for my annual International Women’s Day celebration, it feels good.
Like many communities in the north and north west our industrial heritage is part of our success as well as a challenge.
Batley and Spen can be characterised as ‘post-industrial’. Known as the ‘heavy woollen district’ for its manufacturing of wool cloth, today many commute to desk-bound, or service industry jobs in Leeds, Wakefield and Huddersfield as well as working locally.
The wonderful and impressive cotton mills and other industrial buildings which once filled the air with noise and sucked in local workers for their shift are still there but now serve a different purpose. Some are now luxury apartments, storage centres, shops, and garages with many carrying on the industrial tradition by way of bed manufacturing.
There is a good chance the bed you will sleep on tonight was made in Batley’s factories, the paint on your wall produced in my constituency by PPG, the biscuits dunked into your tea made by Fox’s in Batley and the fire engine you see in the street made by another local company, Angloco.
The shoddy and mungo which once came out of the mills may no longer be sold locally, but we are still producing things in Yorkshire that we can and should be proud of. Postindustrial does not mean no manufacturing at all.
Today, in the shadow of those mill buildings are communities from all sorts of background and cultures. The predominant ones are white British and British-Pakistani. Having these rich cultures offers so much to our area, in particular opportunities for learning and growth.
However, the honest truth is that there are those do not want to see the benefits and the possibilities. I have lost count of the times that I have trodden home from a canvassing session having been left disheartened by something I have heard on the doorstep, which is either overt, or gets close to racism.
Of course, it does not have to be that way. For change to happen we must be creative and think differently and look at new ways to engage across age groups and across ethnic backgrounds. A personal mantra has always been ‘if you build it, they will come’ and I have rolled this over into my role as MP.
One of my proudest achievements was to become patron of the Batley and Spen Youth Theatre. Our first production was a tribute to Jo and her love for musicals.
Approached by West End director Nick Evans and producer Donna Munday with ambition to put on a professional, West End standard production of Les Mis in a local warehouse with mentoring from the talented volunteers at the top of their game, I knew this could be a life-changing experience for young people in my community and decided we must make it happen. Working hard in the community through school workshops and parent meetings we were delighted to have a diverse group of youngsters in our 100-strong cohort. Over Easter and the summer, with a three-week residential period at Leeds University’s halls of residence, these young people got to know each other as friends and colleagues, no longer seeing each other for their faith or how they dressed but as equals with a common goal.
The subsequent sold-out production in Oxfam’s recycling warehouse in Batley blew the community apart. Not just because it was a brilliant, sell-out show with rave reviews but because of the impact the process had on these young people. They were more confident, more inclusive and open-hearted than before.
Parents beamed and even cried, new lasting friendships between adults and children alike were made and you could see before your very eyes new confidence emerging from within the children.
I still hear from the young people involved, and those who took part in subsequent shows, about how they never imagined they could perform or how they had believed that the arts were not for them. Perhaps more precious still are the times I am told that they’ve made their first ‘Asian’ or ‘white’ friend.
I am also an active supporter of Batley Poets, a welcoming and diverse, all-age poetry club that welcomes all – from the white British male biscuit packer to the young South Asian schoolgirl – to regular poetry readings and events. Difference is obliterated by a passion for words and performance.
Creativity is a tool to foster social cohesion and celebrating difference must be at the heart of our Labour values.
This approach is centred on the belief that we are better, stronger and happier when we work together. Even if it feels at times that we are taking baby steps towards progress, we are making progress.
We need to stop seeing schools, high streets, neighbourhoods and religious centres as belonging to certain ‘groups’: it is only when we pull together as one community that we can have meaningful and lasting cohesion.
But coming together needs a venue whether it is a library, a community centre, a pub, dance studio, youth centre, a church hall or a room in a mosque. These are all places where we can share food, ideas, hobbies and conversation. But it is these spaces that we are at risk of losing in our towns and villages and this is something we cannot afford to happen if we are to bring people together.
Growing up, our little library in Birstall was a haven for me. It was a place I could read, learn and write. There were untold books to read and stories to discover. It was a place where I could study in peace, away from the chaos of a small flat and crowded family life.
Safe and welcoming, the library was available to everyone, no matter your background: an opportunity for all children (and adults) to access books their families may not have wanted or been able to provide.
Protecting our local libraries was one of the campaigns I worked on with Jo before her death and it is something I will continue to do. The power to change society is in a library and we must protect them at all cost.
A library is also the only place where no one will ask: “What are you doing here?” It is a refuge for the curious, the lonely and the ambitious. It is also a place where those without tech or access to the internet can be connected. Many have suffered from the absence of library space during this protracted lockdown.
Thankfully our local campaign was successful, and our libraries stayed open. This is not the case in so many places across the country. Towns and villages have been hollowed out and the places for people from all walks of life to mix have been reduced.
It is particularly concerning is that – despite local campaigns when community assets like libraries are under threat – there is little evidence to suggest that the loss of local services is changing habits at the ballot box, either at locally or nationally.
Yet community spaces are vital to our local heritage and many are now facing the real possibility of never reopening after the Covid-19 pandemic. I am currently running to be Labour’s mayor of West Yorkshire and a lot of my thinking is consumed by how we build back better.
Home working and shielding have meant many will have spent almost a year in their homes. Some will have been connected via the internet, others will be isolated and lonely.
Once lockdown restrictions lift, we can then make it our mission to bring people back together. Only 6 per cent of those surveyed in a New Economics Foundation survey said they wanted things to return to how they were before the pandemic, so we know this is a perfect opportunity for change.
As mayor, working with charities, government, councils and stakeholders I will support those venues which want to get back up and running – the community spaces, the music venues and bars, the sports facilities and pubs. Working with Community Foundation partners, the Jo Cox Foundation and others, we will put in place support for the third sector to reach out to the isolated and alone.
On top of this, the mayor has opportunities to increase provision for walking and cycling, expanding green spaces and building homes that work for the people who live in them, giving them opportunities to meet their neighbours and create strong communities.
My plan for a ‘Creative New Deal’ supports social prescribing – using the talents of musicians, dancers and artists to support those with long-term health conditions and poor mental health as well as ensuring our creatives are able to earn a living whilst the sector gets back up and running. I also know the work housing associations do in bringing communities together is invaluable and I will be amplifying and supporting their work.
The Labour party has an important role to play in delivering real, meaningful change for communities.
The 2019 general election was a painful and dispiriting experience. We lost thousands upon thousands of voters and some excellent MPs. We also lost the faith of people. They no longer looked at Labour and saw a party that held the same things dear as they did. Labour has a mountain to climb if it wants to rebuild trust.
That process has got to start from the community up. In this chapter I have explored some of the challenges we face. While there is much to do, I embrace the task ahead. It is too important not to.