Various far-right and other divisive candidates are flocking to contest a by-election in Jo Cox's former parliamentary seat of Batley and Spen, cynically seeking to exploit tensions and raise their profiles.
ON 1 JULY, voters in Batley and Spen will go to the polls to elect a new MP, following the election of former MP Tracy Brabin as the mayor of West Yorkshire. This is a seat that HOPE not hate supporters know well from our work with former MP Jo Cox, who was tragically murdered by a far-right terrorist in 2016.
The election will get a lot of media attention over the coming weeks. Much of that focus will be the two-horse race between the favourites for the seat – Labour’s Kim Leadbeater (Jo’s sister), and the Tories’ Ryan Stephenson. But there’s another angle to this race which is vital to understand: the presence of far-right and radical-right candidates, plus candidates who, while not right-wing, are outright divisive.
The by-election is being viewed as a particular opportunity by the far right due to recent protests held against a teacher at Batley Grammar School. The teacher was suspended after showing a caricature of the prophet Muhammad to pupils. After receiving death threats and going into hiding with his family, the teacher has been cleared of causing deliberate offence following an independent investigation. The far right, however, is seeking to further inflame tensions and exploit press interest on this issue.
There are five far-right or radical-right candidates in this election. None stand any chance of coming close to winning, or even securing a respectable share of the vote. What they are seeking instead is the chance to gain attention so they can recruit new supporters, and stir up division and hate in the community to exploit for their own ends.
The main far-right threat
Anne Marie Waters, For Britain
For Britain is a far-right political party led by the anti-Muslim activist Anne Marie Waters. HOPE not hate has repeatedly exposed For Britain for links to extremists, including entire branches dominated by former BNP figures, and fielding actual nazis in previous elections.
We have previously profiled Waters, but it is worth repeating just some of the stances she has taken:
- She is stridently anti-Muslim, having once said: “For a start the immigration will have to stop, the immigration from Islamic countries has to stop entirely, that is just the way it is. A lot of people need to be deported. Many mosques need to be closed down. It really has to get tough.”
- Waters was de-selected as a UKIP candidate: following pressure from HOPE not hate, after appearing on a white nationalist alt-right outlet to talk about “Opposing the Islamization of Europe”.
- Waters has endorsed the racist “Great Replacement” conspiracy theory, saying: “The only reason that the mass migration into white Europe is happening on the scale that it’s happening is to disempower white people, to make us a minority and therefore unable to wield political power”.
Her campaign has been strongly backed by the extremist and serial criminal Stephen Yaxley-Lennon (aka Tommy Robinson) and she has welcomed him as her “right-hand man”. Lennon is seeking to revive his flagging career, which has run into the ditch after being deplatformed across mainstream social media companies, going to prison (again), and declaring himself bankrupt ahead of a libel trial.
Yaxley-Lennon and Waters are planning an action day on 26 June.
Jayda Fransen, Independent
Jayda Fransen is an anti-Muslim extremist and former Deputy Leader of Britain First, the racist street gang best known for carrying out “mosque invasions” in the UK. She has a string of convictions for religiously-motivated incitement and harassment.
Now the leader of the British Freedom Party (BFP), she was recently humiliated twice in one week during the Scottish Holyrood elections in May: first by Nicola Sturgeon, who embarrassed her in public when Fransen tried to confront her when out campaigning, and then with a comprehensive drubbing at the polls, where Fransen won a mere 46 votes.
The BFP is an anti-Muslim and Christian fundamentalist splinter of Britain First, formed after Jim Dowson and later Fransen fell out with Britain First leader Paul Golding. The party’s ‘newspaper’, The Britannia, is edited by former British National Party (BNP) leader Nick Griffin. Fransen will appear on the ballot as an independent, however, as the BFP has not yet registered as a political party.
Fransen has previously stood unsuccessfully in the 2014 Rochester and Strood by-election, the 2016 London Assembly election and the recent 2021 Scottish Parliamentary elections. She gained notoriety in November 2017 when Donald Trump retweeted three anti-Muslim videos shared by Fransen on her Twitter account, causing a media firestorm.
Fransen has a string of convictions:
- November 2016: Following a ‘Christian Patrol’ in Luton she was convicted of religiously motivated harassment.
- March 2018: She was found guilty of religiously aggravated harassment.
- March 2019: She was convicted of stirring up hatred at a Belfast rally and for separate comments at the peace wall. She was sentenced to 180 hours community service.
Fransen has said that that Islam and the Qu’ran should be banned in the UK and that anti-monarchists should be hanged for treason. The BFP is against abortion and gay marriage.
Minor far-right/radical-right candidates
Jack Thomson, UKIP
Now an electoral irrelevance, UKIP under the leadership of Neil Hamilton remains a toxic presence, having embraced a variety of far-right figures.
Thomson is the coordinator for Young Independence (UKIP’s youth group) for North of Tyne. He ran for North Tyneside mayor, coming last with 2.8% (1,753 votes), and for North Tyneside council (Chirton ward), where he came last with 146 votes.
The young activist wrote an article for the far-right group Hearts of Oak last year in which he claimed that he came across UKIP in late 2018, stating: “I was very fond of their policies. Also, Gerard Batten had the right confidence, charisma and energy I believe a Prime Minister should have”. Gerard Batten is a veteran anti-Muslim activist who embraced far-right street politics during his spell as UKIP leader.
Thomson also wrote: “My interest grew a lot when Tommy Robinson became involved with the party. I had watched many of Tommy’s videos and he too was a man of principle and his incredible devotion to this day cannot be matched by anyone else.”
Therese Hirst, English Democrats
The English Democrats are a far-right English nationalist group led by solicitor Robin Tilbrook. Having previously called for English independence from the UK, it now calls for the creation of an English parliament. The party has welcomed former BNP members into its ranks.
Hirst came second in the 2016 Batley and Spen by-election, although only scored 5% (the Conservatives, Liberal Democrats, UKIP and the Greens did not contest the election out of respect for Jo Cox). Hirst also stood in the 2021 elections as the West Yorkshire Mayoral race, getting 1.5%.
Unsurprisingly, the English Democrats have signalled their intention to exploit the Batley Grammar School issue.
Susan Laird, Heritage Party
The Heritage Party is a minor populist-right party founded by ex-UKIP figure David Kurten in October 2020. The small conspiracy theory-minded group campaigns on an anti-lockdown platform, alongside repealing hate crime laws, curtailing immigration and rolling back environmental legislation. Kurten is an anti-vaxxer active within the UK conspiracy theory protest scene.
The party is fielding former UKIP candidate Susan Laird. Laird recently represented Heritage in Kirklees (Holme Valley North ward), coming last with 27 votes (0%).
Other divisive candidates
Galloway is unlike other candidates in this briefing in that he is not on the right, but he has become increasingly divisive in his politics and his language.
Since leaving Parliament, Galloway has achieved media notoriety with fiery rhetoric – and divisive language. In 2019, he was sacked from his role on TalkRADIO after making a comment that saw him condemned by Tottenham Hotspur Football Club for “blatant anti-Semitism”.
More recently, Galloway was strongly criticised after telling Scottish Justice Secretary Humza Yousaf: “You’re not a Celt like me.”
Galloway is another example of someone from outside the area who is seeking to come in and take advantage of local circumstances to further his own career – and ego.
HOPE not hate is limited in its campaigning in the seat because of spending limits placed on groups like ours. While our volunteers will be active on the ground in the run-up to election day, most of our work will focus on the aftermath.
During the election, we will focus on what the candidates in this briefing say, and we’ll be calling on those with big platforms to help ensure the damage done by their presence on the ballot paper is limited:
- Mainstream politicians – especially from the two main parties, have a responsibility to avoid fanning the flames of division, even inadvertently. That means keeping the rhetoric about opponents calm, it means avoiding inflammatory rhetoric about migration, and it means avoiding stirring up anger over the issue at Batley Grammar School.
- The media – has a responsibility to give the candidates the attention they are due by their stature and support. The candidates listed on this page mostly have a track record of receiving scant support in elections. While their inflammatory antics might make for good copy, the damage done by giving outsized attention to their hate and division has a real world impact.
- Social media firms – also have a big responsibility. The various fringe candidates who have accounts on the mainstream platforms will be using increasingly aggressive language in order to get attention – while seeking to use innuendo and coded language to try to avoid sanctions by those platforms. At the same time, some of these candidates’ supporters are likely to use wild language to stir up division, and spread disinformation. Social media platforms have a clear responsibility to be proactive, and attentive, to this problem. If they take their eye off the ball, the consequences will be real.
The next few weeks will be tough for people in Batley and Spen. It shouldn’t be this way, but the cynical, hate-driven politics of the likes of Jayda Fransen and Anne Marie Waters risk making this election a circus. If they’re allowed to succeed, it will be the people of the area who will be left to pick up the pieces.