DECIDING to stand as a Member of Parliament is a tough call for anyone.
But for Kim Leadbeater, it is also an incredibly poignant one.
She is fighting to win the very constituency where her sister, Labour MP Jo Cox, was murdered by a right-wing terrorist in the run-up to the 2016 Brexit vote.
Jo, 41, was shot in the head and chest and as she lay bleeding in the street her attacker, a Nazi sympathiser, stabbed the young mum 15 times.
One week tomorrow, it will be exactly five years since Jo was killed as she walked to a meeting with constituents in Birstall, West Yorks.
For Kim, who has spent this week pounding the pavements in the Batley and Spen constituency where she will contest the by-election on July 1, it still feels impossibly raw.
She says: “What happened still doesn’t feel real and there’s a bit of me that hopes it never will, because who knows how you are going to cope with that when it does start to feel real?
“But people are resilient. So many people have been through such horrific things, whether it is natural disasters or terrorist attacks and we do find a way of pulling through.
“I remain inspired by what I think Jo would want me to do. She would want me to crack on with life and embrace it with all my heart and that is what I am trying to do.”
‘IT WAS BIGGEST DECISION I’VE EVER HAD TO MAKE’
Yet she admits she has surprised herself with her resilience: “I remember thinking early on in 2016/2017, ‘Gosh I knew I was strong, I’ve always been a strong person but I actually don’t know how I have done it’.”
When former Coronation star Tracy Brabin stood down as MP for Batley and Spen after winning last month’s election to become Mayor of West Yorkshire, Kim, 45, chose to stand for Jo’s old seat.
Exercise company boss Kim, who has no background in politics and, as a personal trainer, was once best known in Batley for her aerobics class, reveals: “It was a massive decision, by far the biggest decision I’ve ever had to make.
“We talked it through as a family as you would expect before I decided to put myself forward. Initially we were all, ‘Yes — you should do it. You’d be amazing, you would be great.’
“And then we all went, ‘Woah, woah, woah, what a ridiculous suggestion, why would you even think about it?’
“And then we pulled right back again and went, ‘Do you know what, if you don’t give this a go, you may well look back and regret it and that would be really upsetting.’ It would be upsetting for me if someone who doesn’t love this community in the way I do gets this job. I’d be really worried that would do damage.”
For the next four weeks, Kim will be knocking on doors where she and Jo grew up, campaigning to keep Batley and Spen for Labour, which has held the seat for 24 years.
The only day she will take off is next Wednesday when she will spend the anniversary of Jo’s death with mum Jean and dad Gordon.
She says: “Mum and Dad are just amazing. They are the kindest, nicest people you could hope to meet.
“They will never be the same again, our family will never be the same again but we have found a way to support each other and pull each other through. And I couldn’t love anybody any more than I do my mum and dad and they are such an important part of my life.”
Kim, whose first job was in sales, flogging beds, adds: “We have always been a glass half full family, always looking for the positives, always finding something, some light in the darkest of times.
“I get my energy from people and when you spend as much time with people as I have done throughout my whole career, throughout my whole life and in the community that keeps you going. So if ever you are having a bad day there is always someone who is going to prop you up and get you going again. Being surrounded by a fantastic network of friends and the community that really embraced us from the start made us feel we weren’t on our own.”
People are resilient. So many have been through horrific things – natural disasters or terrorist attacks – but we do find a way of pulling through
The following weekend will see another Great Get Together.
The event is held every year in Jo’s honour to try to rebuild the divisions that emerged in the 2016 Brexit vote.
Kim says: “It is wonderful to think over Jo’s birthday there will be all sorts of amazing community events taking place in Jo’s name, bringing people together. I will be watching that and be inspired by those amazing events as normal.”
Despite the constituency’s past Labour leanings, Kim has a huge challenge on her hands.
The party is defending a majority of just 3,525 and, while not technically a “Red Wall” seat (the Tories held it for the first 14 years of its life until 1997) fears of another northern constituency switching sides loom large over this by-election.
Batley and Spen is part of the Kirklees District, which voted 60/40 to leave the EU.
Kim says Brexit does not seem to be on people’s minds any more: “Interestingly, hardly anybody is mentioning Brexit and I think that says a lot about where people are. People just want to move on and move forward.”
Local concerns are far more prosaic, she adds: “Even though Batley is a mixed constituency of people from lots of different backgrounds, the issues are very, very similar in terms of traffic and potholes and speeding and anti-social behaviour and fly-tipping. What we call low- level issues but actually can have a massive impact on people’s lives.”
But to complicate matters, Brexit-supporting former Labour MP George Galloway — now standing for The Workers Party of Britain — has joined the fray, intent on luring Muslim voters away from Labour, as he did with the Respect party at elections in Bradford West and Bethnal Green.
A recent estimate from The Muslim Council of Britain puts the number of Muslim voters set to turn out at around 8,600.
Asked what she thinks about the Galloway circus, Kim says: “That is a pretty accurate word. There are going to be several people who will come and stand in the by-election and sadly some will want to sow division, they will want to try and divide our communities.
“My job is to try and rise above that and focus on the issues local people care about because when that circus disappears we all have to live here and I will still be living here.
“The media will go, the cameras will go, the people who don’t live in Batley and Spen will go but my family and friends and the amazing people of this area will still be here.”
Galloway has been his usual ebullient self and claimed in an online video recently that the by-election could be the death knell for Labour’s relatively new leader, saying: “If Keir Starmer loses this by-election, it’s curtains for Keir Starmer.”
But Kim brushes this off: “Keir took over the leadership at a really difficult time. During a pandemic you are not able to go out and meet people. You’re not able to do the full workings of Westminster, do proper Prime Minister’s Questions and everything that goes with that so he has had a really difficult time in that regard. I think he’s provided stability. He has done very well at holding the Government to account when it has been needed.”
That said, she does not have her head in the sand when it comes to Labour’s fundamental problems.
Kim, who grew up with Jo in Heckmondwike, two miles from Batley, adds: “Labour needs to reconnect with its original base, the people who voted Labour all their lives but over the last maybe five years or so have kind of felt like it is not quite where they belong.
“Naturally that will happen over time but we have got to do work listening to those people. Clearly Brexit did play a part in that.
“The consensus now is we need to move forward from Brexit but we need to make sure everybody feels welcome within the Labour Party. Batley and Spen is a traditional working class selection of towns and villages.
“The Labour Party should be those people’s natural home, so we need to make sure if they don’t feel like that, why not, and what can we do to show them this is exactly where they belong.”
‘TOXICITY IN POLITICS IS HORRIFIC AT TIMES’
After winning a host of Red Wall seats in the North, including the recent Hartlepool by-election, it is looking more and more like the Tory Party is where people feel they belong.
So does Kim think Prime Minister Boris Johnson is now invincible?
She says: “The evidence suggests that incumbent governments have done well during lockdown.
“But we need a strong opposition and it is really important during the next couple of years the Labour Party puts itself in a position where it is able to challenge the Conservative government and indeed Boris on the things that they get wrong.”
Kim Leadbeater is without doubt an impressive woman who has taken on a challenge — a calling — that many would avoid.
To enter the lion’s den of politics takes courage and Kim has bags of it. And she does this against a backdrop of what seems to be increasing nastiness and hostility.
The disgraceful voices that abused and ultimately led to the death of her sister have got louder. But, says Kim, this makes her decision to stand even more important.
She says: “The toxicity in politics and in public life is pretty horrific at times. It is tough, really tough.
“I have had lots of conversations with politicians, journalists and others over the last few years about some of the abuse that they have faced and it is awful, quite frankly.
“But what I would say to that as well is what Jo used to say to me: If good people don’t step up, then nothing will change.”
Source: Read Full Article