The racist frontline of Batley and Spen is not what it seems


IN 1974, I left the sanctuary of my parents’ home in rural West Sussex to begin studying for a history degree in the grey Yorkshire mill town of Huddersfield.

My new compatriots spoke with an accent I had only previously heard on TV’s Emmerdale Farm.

But they were warm and welcoming and a real sense of community existed everywhere I turned.

I quickly sampled the local cuisine of Sam and John Smith’s beer, pie floaters on mushy peas and fish wibbits.

And more importantly a regular Friday evening curry at a Punjabi café run by two brothers, first generation migrants from Indian Gujarati.

I loved it all and stayed to work in the area long after graduating.

Less than seven miles away in the neighbouring town of Heckmondwike, Helen Joanne Leadbeater (who would one day become Mrs Jo Cox) was born, in June 1974, to a caring working class household.

Mum Jean was a school secretary and dad Gordon worked in a toothpaste and hairspray factory in nearby Leeds.

Heckmondwike is a small industrial town, alongside Birstall and Batley, nestled in the Kirkless valley with its larger neighbour Huddersfield.

It was part of the Heavy Woollen District, so-called due to the dozens of woollen mills which had been built alongside the fast flowing Calder and Spen rivers during the Industrial Revolution.

The area was enhanced during the 1950s and 1960s by the immigration of hundreds of people from Pakistan and India, who came to work in the local textile industries.

My friend Faisal Akhtar migrated with his young family from Kashmir in 1972.

“When we arrived we were housed in a shared terraced house in Hounslow – near Heathrow Airport – but it was cramped and we faced racist name calling every day,” he recalls.

“I was a skilled machinist and knew I had to find work if we were to get on. In 1973 we moved to Leicester, where my brother told me there was work and a chance of a better life in West Yorkshire.

“In 1974 we moved again and settled here. Forty years later my youngest daughter Kemal is born here and my granddaughters speak with such a strong accent that I sometimes have to ask them to repeat what they say,” he laughs.

But in 1974, the woollen industry was in decline and the UK hit by recession, the Three-Day Week and regular electricity blackouts.

There was also double-digit inflation, which peaked at more than 20%.

But around me life went on, and many of the first generation Asian migrants immersed themselves in their communities, making a living by running small corner stores and market stalls and in some instances larger retail and manufacturing enterprises.

The only thing which divided the Asian migrants from the white indigenous population was the occasional language barrier.

If racism did exist, it was not obvious and certainly not violent.

My grandparents’ best friend’s son David Smirthwaite was a local bank manager. He once told me: “I usually grant loans to Asian entrepreneurs, because they work hard, never default and more than any other immigrants want to feel British.”

The monetarist economics and politics of Margaret Thatcher were soon to test this.

During the 1980s national unemployment rose for the first time to over three million. In Kirklees the pain was felt as hard as anywhere as factories, mills and businesses folded.

And race holds no discrimination when it comes to unemployment.

By now a second generation of British Asians were being born and educated alongside white children… social cohesion thrived.

The pattern continued as members of the former homogenous south Asian communities gradually moved and integrated into predominantly white areas.

In 2013 a local government report traced these movements:

  • There is evidence of dispersal of ethnic minority groups from areas in which they have previously clustered in Kirklees.
  • The Pakistani and Indian groups are growing most rapidly in wards neighbouring those in which they are most clustered, including Lindley, Mirfield and Heckmondwike.
  • The 2011 Census shows that Kirklees is not becoming less British: more people report a British national identity than report White British ethnic identity.

Against this background, the far right never had a foothold in Batley and Spen.

Although the National Front kicked off at a couple of minor demonstrations in Huddersfield in 1969 and 1970; throughout the 1970s, 1980s and most of the 1990s the far right didn’t field a candidate at any General Election.

And when the BNP did fight the 1997 General Election their man Ron Smith polled just 472 votes – less than 0.5% of the poll.

But post 9/11 and the resultant surge of Islamophobia, the BNP looked at the seemingly high number of Asian Muslims in West Yorkshire – by this time second or third generation British citizens – and decided to target Batley and Spen.

In the 2005 General Election their candidate Colin Auty polled a shocking 2,668 or 6.8% of the poll. This was replicated in 2010 when the BNP’s David Exley won 3,685 (7.1%) votes.

In 2003, the Heckmondwike electoral ward elected Exley to the local council. He was re-elected in 2004, and in 2006 a second BNP member, Roger Roberts, was elected.

Suddenly, the far right was finding a racist toe-hold.

In 2009, Wikileaks published the BNP’s own membership lists, which showed that Batley and Spen had one of the highest memberships of any UK constituency.

Today experts claim at least seven far-right groups united by racist ideologies are active in the West Yorkshire region.

Among the organisations are the virulently anti-Muslim English Defence League (EDL), which claims to have established “divisions” in Leeds, Huddersfield, Halifax and Dewsbury – all within 10 miles of Batley and Spen – along with the British Movement (BM), a small but ultra-violent group considered extreme even by the standards of the British far right.

Other organisations include National Action, a neo-Nazi nationalist youth movement that openly advocates violence and whose strategy document make reference to Hitler.

And among the most active are The Yorkshire Infidels, who belong to a regional network of “far-right fascist gangs” whose marches often descend into violence.

According to Prevent, the government’s counter-extremism programme, the region’s small but determined far-right nexus has led to far-right extremists accounting for half of all referrals in Yorkshire to its counter-radicalisation programme.

Matthew Collins of Hope Not Hate said: “When it comes to getting numbers, the north-west and the north-east are the hotspots, but West Yorkshire always manages to get the numbers out.”

The region’s Muslim population has amplified far-right sentiment, giving Islamophobic groups a visible “enemy” to rally against.

The far right in West Yorkshire also has links to the US with the National Alliance, a once-prominent white-supremacist group based in West Virginia, whose British representative, according to Hope Not Hate, lives near Leeds.

In 2013 Charles Farr, then director-general of the UK Office for Security and Counter Terrorism, warned that the threat from extreme-right-wing lone wolves was increasing.

Many of the largest caches of arms found in the previous five years had been connected to the far right.

Nick Lowles, chief executive of Hope Not Hate said the UK needed to prepare itself for the “rising militancy of Britain’s far right” which he said would “lead to greater violence in 2016”.

He said: “This could be manifested in three ways: a general increase in anti-left wing harassment and attacks; communal violence where gangs of far-right supporters clash with Muslim or Eastern European youths; or, in extreme cases, terrorism.”

The same terrorism which took MP Jo Cox’s life last Thursday afternoon.