Kim Leadbeater out on the campaign trail with days to go before the crucial Batley and Spen by-election (Image: Julian Hamilton/Daily Mirror)

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In a tricky by-election you need energy, and Labour’s Kim Leadbeater has it by the bucketful.

The 45-year-old fitness trainer meets me with an excited wave, talking at a hundred miles an hour – then sprints up the West Yorkshire hills to knock on doors, leaving me panting behind.

“The campaign is going very well!” she grins. And Kim hasn’t a minute to lose in the race to win a seat once held by her sister Jo Cox, murdered five years ago by a far-right extremist.

From her sunny outlook, you wouldn’t believe Labour fear losing Batley and Spen after 24 years this Thursday.

Kim points out she’s the only one of 16 candidates to live in the seat – and has put up a spirited fight against low-profile Tory Ryan Stephenson.

But the George Galloway “circus” has come to town on an open-topped bus. Yards from Labour HQ is a giant poster of the firebrand ex-MP, fists in boxing position, with the words ‘Starmer OUT’.

A poster which says ’Starmer Out’ used by candidate George Galloway near Batley town centre
(Image: Julian Hamilton/Daily Mirror)

Mr Galloway’s Workers Party wants to decimate Labour’s 3,525 majority by appealing to Batley’s Muslim community over issues like the bloodshed in Gaza.

He brags he can knock Labour into third. But Labour insiders believe the more realistic risk is he’ll gift the Tories a clear run – and their second by-election upset in two months.

After weeks of headlines, Kim claims her home is “being used as a political football… and that breaks my heart”.

She avoids naming Mr Galloway – but tells the Mirror: “What upsets me is I think there’s going to be a number of people who’ll come in here with their own agendas, trying to cause upset for the people of Batley and Spen.

"People round here have been through enough. They’ve had five years, a number of elections, a number of by-elections, they actually just want to live peacefully together.

"So I’ll be rising above anybody else’s agenda and focusing very heavily on what I’m doing and what is in the best interests of this area."

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  • We asked people in Batley and Spen how they'll be voting in the by-election

She says Labour must “listen to the concerns” and fight for Muslim voters on Palestinians, Kashmir and Islamophobia, after five local Muslim groups accused Labour of taking their “votes and voices for granted”.

"I will be a strong voice within the Labour Party against the government and against the broader international community on whatever issues my constituents care about. That is my job," she says.

But she insists plenty of local issues are coming up on the doorstep too – potholes, crime, anti-social behaviour, green spaces, the NHS and education.

“Social media is a different world,” she adds. “Anybody who is judging this by-election on Twitter or Facebook is probably not getting a very accurate representation of what’s really going on.”

Two days after we meet, a video spreads like wildfire of Kim being shouted at in the street after a man demands to know if she supports LGBT education in schools.

In the video she tells him: “This is where I live, this is my community. Don’t come here and shout at me in the street. The Muslim community of Batley and Spen deserve better than this.”

During our interview, she tells me: “Sadly we’re going to get some very nasty, divisive figures who are going to turn up in Batley and Spen over the next week or so.

“That’s not helpful for our community. And when the circus leaves town, I still have to live here.

“Everybody else still has to live here peacefully. And that’s what the vast majority of people want to do.”

Kim admits that despite her bid to “rise above it” and run a positive campaign, she’s seen “a nasty side” to politics – including “personal commentary about my private life”.

But she adds: “For now I’m very much focusing on the by-election, the campaign and doing what’s right for local people.”

Kim on the sister she lost five years ago

Jo Cox's legacy hits you the moment you arrive at Batley station.

As the train to Huddersfield curves away through the hills, it reveals a pictures on the opposite platform of the murdered MP, gardening gloves in hand, making it a better place.

Her name adorns a community wood, a sixth-form centre and Jo Cox House, home to the foundation in her memory.

After marking the five-year anniversary of her sister’s death this month,(JUNE) Kim is now keen to talk about more than just the tragic events of that day – and build a legacy of her own.

“Many people know me as Jo’s sister, of course they do,” she says.

“It’s part of my story and I’m incredibly proud to be Jo’s sister. It was a really difficult decision to go for the seat, probably the most difficult decision of my life.

“But I asked myself how I would feel if anybody who didn’t care about this constituency as much as I do ended up representing the area that I love.”

Multiple insiders told the Mirror the by-election result is too close to call. Labour is battling the ‘Galloway factor’ and a ’vaccine bounce’ for the Tories nationally.

One source said that at a door-knocking session, fewer than half of those listed as Labour voters said they would stick with the party. Another said the “working assumption” is that Labour will lose.

But there was a common thread when we spoke to voters – several praised Kim, who is well-known for her work bringing communities together in Jo’s memory.

She suggests she can use that recognition to help Labour reconnect with the public.

“Labour Party values are the values I’ve lived my life by,” she says. “But I think we have to be honest that the Labour Party has also got some work to do.

Kim Leadbeater out on the doorstep talking to voters. She warns one there's the 'danger' that Labour voters will stay at home
(Image: Julian Hamilton/Daily Mirror)

“We’ve had two really bad general election defeats, something’s not working, so we need to look at how we can rebuild and make sure people feel the Labour Party is their home.

“And if I can be part of that process, I’d be very proud and very honoured to do so.”

She adds: "I’m happy to provide my oomph and my energy wherever it’s needed. And I think that’s the advantage of being fairly new to politics.

"Because you do bring something different – a lot of people have very kindly described me like a breath of fresh air. And people generally are saying there’s a lot of disillusionment, there’s a lot of disengagement with politics.

"I think by bringing people who don’t necessarily have a traditional political background into politics I think is a really positive thing. And that’s absolutely no disrespect to anybody who’s been a politician all their lives, because they could also be doing a fantastic job. But I do think we need people with life experience."

On the day we meet, a Tory ex-mayor of Kirklees says he will back Kim because she “might not be favourite with the whips”. When I ask if she’ll be willing to defy Keir Starmer, she laughs.

“I am a very strong independent-minded Yorkshirewoman!” she says. “I will always do what’s in the best interests of the people of Batley and Spen.

"So if elected, it would be my responsibility to represent their views, and I will do that however is needed, in whatever situation I find myself in."

Kim Leadbeater with Labour MP Rosena Allin-Khan, who came up to campaign, and a local activist
(Image: Julian Hamilton/Daily Mirror)

But asked if Keir Starmer should quit if Labour loses the by-election, she says “for now” her focus is on the race itself.

She insists people “really, really liked him” when he visited Batley and Spen, saying: “I think Keir took over the Labour leadership at a really difficult time, just before lockdown.

“He’s not had a chance to go out and meet people, go and show people who he really is.”

Unlike Hartlepool which fell to the Tories in May, Batley and Spen is not a ‘Red Wall’ seat.

The area has been Labour since 1997 but never by a five-figure margin (except after Jo Cox’s death), and has a history of liking independents.

Batley and Spen profile

Nestled in hills between Dewsbury and Bradford, Batley and Spen voted Tory from its 1983 creation until 1997.

Boundary changes and Tony Blair’s landslide turned it red – but Labour’s majority dropped to a low of 3,525 in 2019.

The seat has the Fox’s biscuits plant, the Mill outlet and legions of bed factories. A major employer is also the Junction 27 retail park by the M62, while there is a row over plans to build a giant Amazon warehouse on green fields near Cleckheaton.

Kirklees Council held steady under Labour control in May’s local elections despite trouble for Keir Starmer elsewhere.

In 2011, 19% of residents were Muslim, four times more than in Britain as a whole.

26% of children are in absolute poverty compared to 16% in the UK. But the 5.4% of residents claiming unemployment benefits in May 2021 was less than the 6% in the UK overall.

It’s four very different towns – Batley and Heckmondwike have Labour councillors, Birstall has Tories and Cleckheaton, in the Spen Valley, has Lib Dems.

Batley and Cleckheaton are four miles apart, but the 271 direct bus runs only five times a day.

Batley and surrounding towns recently got £1.5m, but that is less than £200m given to nearby Dewsbury, while Batley was passed over for the Tories’ Towns Fund.

Tory candidate Ryan Stephenson claims people “feel forgotten about” over 24 years of Labour. He told a hustings: “People are asking, ‘how did my life locally improve over that time’.”

A man sums this up when he shouts “no one ever asks us what we think!” to me from a first-floor window, next-door to the library in Birstall where Jo Cox was murdered.

The centre of Birstall, up the road from Batley. The seat is four towns and the villages around
(Image: Julian Hamilton/Daily Mirror)

But one Tory told me local activists are “getting frustrated” with the Conservatives’ “homogenous” approach.

“It’s come from CCHQ to keep to the three prongs – employment, investment, education,” they said. “Speak to that and don’t get embroiled in contentious issues.”

Taxi drivers have shared Mr Galloway’s messages and he’s a familiar face in shops in Batley. One man shouts “come on George Galloway!” out of his car window at me. An 18-year-old tells me he and his family – who previously voted Labour – will all back Mr Galloway.

Siddique Amin, 46, is urging friends to turn back to Labour. The managing director of La Romantica beds, who knew Jo Cox, said: “All the work that’s been done over the last five years since Jo died – this could undo some of this and I don’t like the thought of that.

“I don’t think the people in Gaza are sitting there waiting for George Galloway to be elected the MP for Batley and Spen.

The high street in Batley – where a lot of Labour's traditional support would hope to be
(Image: Julian Hamilton/Daily Mirror)

“There’s discord and there are people looking at this and saying ‘right, Labour haven’t done anything for us in such a long time’. But they have to be realistic about what an MP can and can’t do and how far they can actually go.”

Labour’s dilemma is clear in one conversation Kim has on the doorstep. The man isn’t a fan of Mr Galloway – but is undecided.

Kim warns him Mr Galloway could “split the vote”, adding: “If people don’t come out and vote for me – that’s the danger.”

Before long we’ll know if she’s overcome it.