How Kim Leadbeater could defy the slope and be Sir Keir's saviour

Social media went slightly mad when Labour leader Sir Keir Starmer was pictured having dinner at a hotel in Liversedge.

Thursday, 10th June 2021, 7:00 pm
Kim Leadbeater having dinner with Labour Party leader Sir Keir Starmer at the Healds Hall Hotel in Liversedge

Sir Keir, making a visit to Batley and Spen ahead of a by-election which could make or break his future, dined with his party’s candidate Kim Leadbeater.

London’s Evening Standard thought this was big news and ran a picture with the screaming headline: “Starmer dines with Batley and Spen candidate in West Yorkshire.”

If it had been George Galloway, his sworn political enemy, he was sharing the olives with, that might have been news but not his own candidate, surely?

Reporter Martin Shaw, back left, covering a visit by former Chancellor Denis Healey around Batley Market back in 1989

Poor old Batley and Spen is back in the national - and international - spotlight in the run-up to its fourth Parliamentary election since Jo Cox was brutally murdered in Birstall on June 16, 2016.

This constituency, which saw its towns built with textile wealth, has been through the mill in the last five years.

A by-election was triggered by the resignation of Labour’s Tracy Brabin, who quickly swept through on her way to becoming the much more powerful Mayor of West Yorkshire.

On Thursday morning Sir Keir became the first of what will, no doubt, be many political "Big Beasts" who will bump elbows and smile through masked faces at hapless voters, many of whom won’t vote at all.

Sir Keir and Ms Leadbeater during a visit to Batley. Photo: Getty Images

As a journalist I’m old enough to have seen a few general elections. I was a cub reporter at the Batley News in 1989 when I followed a Big Beast of the day, the bushy-eyebrowed former Chancellor Denis Healey around Batley Market (when there was one).

I was 19 at the time and it was a thrill to get so close to a politician I’d only seen on the TV news.

He was there to support Labour candidate Ken Woolmer and - as I recall - Denis bought a jar of jam on the market and generously declined his change (please feel free to make up your own jokes here about the frugality or otherwise of Labour Chancellors).

The editor, the late J Keith Hustler, headlined my story something about Denis “promising jam tomorrow”. This was a political reference that went over my head at the time.

The huge poster of George Galloway in Batley

So fast-forward to 2021 - with my career having come full circle - and I’m back on the campaign trail in Batley.

We got the hint earlier this week that somebody important might be coming. Hush, hush for security reasons, of course.

I think we guessed. I was hoping for a sit-down chat with the man who would be Prime Minister to ask him some searching questions on behalf of the people of Batley and Spen. I’m no Jeremy Paxman though, I must confess.

But when the invitation eventually came through it wasn’t for a one-to-one with Sir Keir and Kim, sister of Jo Cox of course, it was for a media “huddle” and “you may be able to ask one question”.

That fair took the wind out of my sails but I wasn’t really surprised. No need to do much homework for this “interview”, then.

So what question to ask? Do I try to be uber clever and look good in front of my journalistic colleagues - as the national boys and girls do on the coronavirus press conferences - or do I take the persona of the down-to-earth Batley lad and play it for laughs?

After all, whatever question I ask won’t get a proper answer. Not even Paxman gets answers, though he might keep trying.

As I prepared for the visit up popped the Standard’s story about Sir Keir’s dinner with Kim at the Healds Hall Hotel in Liversedge.

If that’s the standard of news, I don’t have to try too hard. So is that my one question then?

“Sir Keir. Welcome to Batley. What did you have for dinner last night?”

I chuckled to myself as I pondered the big question on my drive to the Fox’s Biscuits Stadium, home of Batley Bulldogs.

I drove along Bradford Road past the old Batley Variety Club/Frontier club and saw George Galloway’s election HQ bedecked in posters and flags. It’s the former Brooklands bar if you haven’t been that way for a while.

He’s making a statement of intent is George. I then turned up Hick Lane and into Wellington Street heading towards Fox’s. I glanced at the former job centre - or labour exchange in Denis Healey’s days - and that’s now, appropriately, Labour’s HQ.

And straight across the road is a big poster of a less than gorgeous George posing fists up, like a boxer, with the slogan: “Starmer Out”.

Welcome to Batley, Sir Keir.

After a quick stop to grab a photo of the poster it was up to Mount Pleasant and the rugby ground.

I parked up, masked up and strolled straight in. Before I knew it I was out on the edge of the pitch and inside the stadium.

There was a gaggle of journalists and TV crews, a couple of spin doctors, police and/or security, the Bulldogs chairman Kevin Nicholas and assorted others.

The groundsman, no doubt, wasn’t too chuffed at seeing this amount of footfall on the edge of his beloved pitch. At one point he looked like he might turn the sprinklers on the media throng. He didn’t.

Sir Keir found out about all the good work the Bulldogs do on and off the field and then flitted from camera to camera, the soundbites flowing. As a former lawyer he’s never short of a word or three, that’s for sure.

There were five journalists in our “huddle”. We were told we had one question each.

Kim and Sir Keir came and went as we patiently awaited our turn. My mind turned back to the pitch and that infamous Mount Pleasant slope.

I couldn’t help but think Labour have an uphill task in this election. The Tories are playing with the slope.

I played in a charity football match on this pitch when I was 40 and it’s hard work battling the slope, believe me.

Finally, we got our man and Sir Keir came over. He was charming and polished as you would expect. He batted off the difficult questions, particularly about George Galloway’s “hate” campaign, and all was fine.

I asked a serious question about the issues facing Batley and Spen but then, as the spin doctor tried to close down the huddle, I landed the killer question: “What did you have for dinner, Sir Keir?”

For the record it was fish. He was a bit vague on the detail - it was either cod or sea bass.

Never one to miss an opportunity, he added: “It was a fantastic restaurant and fantastic company.

“People from other tables came up because they knew Kim. I was very struck by the number of people who come up because they know Kim, they know of her work and genuinely respect her. This is not just people who would vote Labour. That’s very genuine and very real.”

And that’s why Kim could, just could, defy the slope and gallop in as Sir Keir’s saviour. Expect more Big Beasts fishing for votes on a street near you soon.