How Kim Leadbetter won Batley and Spen for Labour – by the local journalist who covered her story from the start

Dominic Brown, editor of the local newspaper for Batley, offers his unique insight into how Jo Cox’s sister emerged as the winning candidate in the hotly contested by-election

Kim Leadbeater celebrates by a canal in Huddersfield after winning the Batley and Spen by-election. Photo: Danny Lawson/PA Wire

It's been a campaign like no other - handshakes, media scrums and tour buses replaced by face masks, elbow bumps and socially distanced press calls. Welcome to a by-election in the age of Covid.

I've covered a few elections in my time as a reporter but this was my first as an editor. I was appointed to the top job at the Batley & Birstall News, Spenborough Guardian and Dewsbury Reporter series in late March, and within a few weeks of joining the team it became clear we would be in the national political spotlight.

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Tracy Brabin's election as the new Mayor of West Yorkshire in early May triggered the by-election in Batley and Spen - meaning voters would have to go to the polls for the fifth time in the last six years.

A stone sign in the Jo Cox Community Wood in Liversedge (Photo: PA)

I was honoured to get the call earlier this year from my boss to offer me the editor's job at the Reporter series. I've come back to my roots, in more ways than one.

I was born and raised in North Kirklees, and I took my first steps into the world of journalism as a teenager on work experience at the Spen Guardian 20 years ago.

The legacy of Jo Cox

On the tragic day Jo Cox was murdered back in June 2016, I was in the newsroom with colleagues at our sister papers The Yorkshire Post and Yorkshire Evening Post. I couldn't believe what was unfolding that afternoon.

Keir Starmer and Kim Leadbeater during a visit to the Jo Cox Community Wood in Liversedge (Photo: PA)

I went to school just a few hundred yards away from where Jo was killed. A place which held so many happy childhood memories was suddenly transformed into a scene of horror.

But in the aftermath of such a tragedy, something truly remarkable happened. The community pulled together and united in a beautiful way.

The Jo Cox Foundation was created, to continue Jo's legacy and those iconic three words for which she'll always be remembered - More in common.

Millions of people around the country now take part in coffee mornings, garden parties and other community events each June as part of The Great Get Together.

A driving force behind much of this was Jo's sister, Kim Leadbeater who would go even further when the first lockdown began in March 2020, supporting local food banks, ensuring vulnerable people received all the supplies they needed and helping to combat loneliness during the pandemic.

This extraordinary effort would see her receive an MBE in the Queen's New Year's Honours for services to social cohesion and community.

Breaking the news

Fast forward a few months to the morning after the West Yorkshire Mayor election and I was on our usual daily call with my colleague Martin Shaw when conversation turned to who would throw their hat in the ring for the by-election.

'I wonder if Kim fancies it?' I mused. Clearly lots of other people had the same thought.

The next day I had a call from one of Kim's team asking me what's the latest he could get something to me for inclusion in that week's edition. Journalistic curiosity took over and I asked the question - 'Are you going to tell me Kim is putting herself forward as a candidate?' No official confirmation, but a strong hint.

Another conversation followed the next morning and we worked together to exclusively reveal on the front page of that week's edition that Kim was entering the race.

Kim's decision to stand had stemmed from numerous people asking her, and encouraging her to do so. She had represented the community of Batley and Spen so well in such challenging times, and they wanted her to be their voice again - this time in Parliament.

The next 24 hours were a whirlwind - our exclusive was picked up by national and international media outlets and suddenly the front page of the Batley and Birstall News was everywhere.

A few weeks later and Kim received the Labour party nomination. Other parties started to reveal their candidates and the by-election campaign got into full swing.

We're only a small team at the Reporter series, and it was at this point I realised it was time to call for reinforcements. Step forward Tony Earnshaw, of the Local Democracy Reporting Service, and Rob Parsons, political editor at The Yorkshire Post, two excellent operators who really bolstered our coverage. The four of us would work closely together over the coming weeks to give our readers the best possible coverage.

On another of our morning calls, Martin and I wondered how long it would be before the political heavyweights arrived in town from Westminster. We soon had our answer.

The leaders weigh in

First to arrive was Labour leader Sir Keir Starmer, a man under mounting pressure following a shock defeat in the Hartlepool by-election.

He joined Kim at Batley Bulldogs' stadium, which rugby league fans know is famous for its sloping pitch. You couldn't escape the symbolism of the uphill battle for Starmer. Add to that the giant posters of George Galloway which had been erected in town, fists raised in a boxing stance with the words 'Starmer Out', and the Labour leader was in no doubt about the battle ahead.

But he was buoyed by events of the night before. While dining with Kim at a local hotel, he was struck by the sheer number of people who would come over to say hello to her. Food for thought, and it must have reassured him that he had a strong candidate.

A week later and it was the Prime Minister's turn. He visited Kirklees College in Dewsbury to pledge more investment in further education training, and then headed down the road for what he described as a 'personal pilgrimage' to the Fox's Biscuits factory in Batley (his long-time PA Ann Sindall used to work there).

While in Batley he vowed to level up and invest in skills, as well as answering the big question of the day - what was his favourite biscuit? It was a jam and cream, in case you were wondering.

The tour of the Fox's factory also gave us one of the best stats of the campaign. How many biscuits does the factory bake each year? If you ever get asked that in a quiz, the answer is a staggering three billion.

The Prime Minister was joined by Conservative candidate Ryan Stephenson, a Leeds city councillor who was focusing his campaign on jobs, apprenticeships, investment and helping to 'build back better' after the pandemic.

The Conservatives were on a roll following taking another brick from the so-called 'red wall' in the North East, and were targeting Batley and Spen as another seat they could take.

A tough test for Labour

I thought Ryan's campaign could prove to be a winner with undecided voters. Residents in Batley and Spen will have seen what's happening down the road in the neighbouring Dewsbury constituency, where Government cash is pouring in as part of a £50m regeneration of the town centre.

Dewsbury turned blue at the 2019 General Election when Mark Eastwood won the seat from Labour. Since then he has worked with the town board and Kirklees Council to secure funding to enable nine major projects to go-ahead over the coming years.

Would electing a Conservative MP mean Batley and Spen could push for similar investment from a Tory Government? Or would a Labour MP who could work alongside a Labour West Yorkshire Metro Mayor (who used to be the constituency MP) be the better option?

After another visit by the PM, this time to a paint factory in Birstall with Ryan, and a return fixture at the Bulldogs for Kim with three Labour city region mayors (Andy Burnham, Steve Rotheram and Dan Jarvis), polling day arrived.

An election all-nighter is one of the biggest challenges in journalism - but also a great buzz.

We heard whispers during the night that it was going to be a very close call, and so it proved. Kim had won, but by a very slim margin of just 323 votes, continuing the recent trend of Labour holds in Batley and Spen but with decreased majorities.

Pundits will debate the impact of the Matt Hancock scandal late in the campaign, the George Galloway effect and the ongoing discussion over the Labour leadership.

It has been a hotly contested by-election, and on occasions things have turned unsavoury. But there have been messages of hope, none more so than when hundreds of people gathered in Batley last weekend for a Stand Up To Racism rally to show that the town will not be divided and hate won't win.

The community of Batley and Spen asked Kim to stand. And when all the votes were counted, she emerged as the people's champion.

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