Uncertain times in Labour’s rugby league heartlands
The Labour Party and Rugby League have been central to the lives of working-class people in Batley for over a century. But for how much longer?
July 2016 and Britain was still coming to terms with the fallout from the EU referendum. Uncertainty and confusion about the future had permeated the national consciousness as the politicians tried to navigate the country’s new course. For some, there was fear that a “frenzy of hate” had been unleashed, with immigrants attacked in the street and told to “go home”. Many people — blindsided by the Brexit result — wondered what sort of country they had been living in.
It seems unimaginable now that a town such as Batley could have attracted some of the biggest acts in the world
At the same time, people in Batley were coming to terms with a significant change in their story too. After almost fifty years since it had first opened its doors to the public, the Frontier — known in its heyday around the globe as the Batley Variety Club — was preparing to close for the final time. “We are very conscious that this will be quite emotive for many people,” declared Nick Westall, the last General Manager of the club. “We understand the loss of any significant entertainment space can be extremely damaging to small towns.” Thousands snapped up tickets for the grand finale. It was, reported one paper, “the end of an era that we will never see again”.
The club’s demise — replaced now by a JD gym — closed another chapter in the history of post-war industrial Britain. It seems unimaginable now that a town such as Batley could have attracted some of the biggest acts in the world — from Tom Jones, the Bee Gees and Dusty Springfield to Tommy Cooper and Morecambe and Wise.
In May 1968, Louis Armstrong made the unlikely trip from Hollywood to Batley — where he had been filming Hello Dolly — to perform his new hit song “What A Wonderful World”. Tales are still recounted of the times that Shirley Bassey and Jayne Mansfield came to the town expecting to go out for “a posh dinner” after performing, only to be taken to the local fish and chip shop. There was romance there too. While performing at the club in 1968, Roy Orbison met his future wife, as did Maurice Gibb, who fell for Yvonne Spencely whilst she was working there as a waitress.
These memorable club nights took place at the height of the long post-war boom. While never an affluent area, Batley was a working-class constituency where people could expect gradual improvements in their lives. Economically, it was renowned for producing “shoddy” materials from the recycling of discarded wool. In the last by-election held before the death of Jo Cox — in 1949 — Clement Attlee argued that towns like Batley and the “great basic industries which produce our wealth” earned Britain “the admiration of the free world”.
It was a town structured around the post-war consensus between capital and labour. The state provided the resources, jobs, housing, healthcare and education, while the variety club and the rugby league team provided the leisure. For much of the post-war period, it was a Labour town. Dr Alfred Broughton, elected in 1949, was an idealist who gave up medicine for politics because he believed that there were “many ailments in this life which a politician can cure and a doctor cannot”.
But by the middle of the 1970s, there was a growing sense that the textile industry would “cease to exist as a viable community” in the face of new global markets. When a group of social scientists visited the town amidst rising unemployment, they found that “decline is so normal that no one considers it worth bothering with.”
Broughton’s name would be etched into political folklore in April 1979, when, in his final act for the party, he offered to come down to the House of Commons on his sick bed to save Jim Callaghan in his no-confidence vote against Mrs Thatcher. But he was too ill to be nodded through and died a few days later. The subsequent election marked the end of heavy industrial Britain. And while nobody expects Adele or Ed Sheeran to pitch up at Batley these days, one of the former regulars at the Variety Club admitted that “it doesn’t make change any easier to deal with”.
The most troubling omen for Labour is that Batley is a heartland of rugby league
The legacy of those changes to industrial Britain — in the lifetime of many of the people in the area — are central to the tensions running through the Batley by-election this week. However, the most troubling omen for Labour is that it is a heartland of rugby league — a type of place that has become one of the marginal swing areas in British politics. Labour held Batley and Spen in 2019, but on a night of symbolic blows, the party lost Leigh, Wakefield, Warrington South, Keighley, Barrow, Dewsbury and Workington. And it could have been a lot worse for Corbyn’s Labour had the Brexit Party not split the vote.
Speaking to people in Batley, there is a sense that the Labour Party, as they once understood it, no longer exists. The famous “chicken in a basket” that was once served to the regulars at the Variety Club is a tradition now kept alive by The Union Rooms pub in the town centre. The name is a nod to the industrial heritage of the town. There, punters explain what they think has gone wrong with Labour in recent years. The conclusion is that the party no longer speaks “for people like us”. The pub is owned by Wetherspoons, and there is the feeling that Labour activists would “look down” on the sort of people that drink there. The Remain push to #BoycottWetherspoons in the wake of the Brexit vote was seen by some as a snobbish attack on their social lives.
It’s the sort of assumption made about Labour by those that have switched to the Conservative Party. Even Labour’s Deputy Leader Angela Rayner has admitted that the party has spent too long “talking down” to working class voters. But in a bid to revive Labour’s fortunes, Keir Starmer must walk the tightrope between two groups that appear to be in constant battle with each other. On one side, the lure of the “traditional” Labour voter remains strong, both for historical reasons and ideological ones. There will always be a belief that there is little purpose in a Labour Party that cannot represent towns like Batley and Spen. On the other side, the calculation is that the cities — and the new urban, precarious workers who rent and don’t own their home — should form the bedrock of the party’s support.
An example of the difficulties in appealing to both camps can be seen in Starmer’s decision to “take the knee” during the height of the Black Lives Matter protests last year. It has cut through in Batley, and Labour’s opponents believe that it is a blind spot for him. A fake leaflet — mocked up as a Labour official one — says the Labour leader “believes that it is high time that white people acknowledge their privilege”. At the same time, many activists believe that he did not do enough to support the BLM protests last year. He was accused of insensitivity when he called it “a moment” and took unconscious bias training to ensure that he did not “misspeak” again.
Few within Labour circles have drawn the distinction, but many of the party’s difficulties in holding together its coalition mirror those that have impacted rugby league over the past decade. When the sport moved to the summer in 1996, there was a clear expectation that new clubs would emerge with greater access to markets and sponsorships. Heritage clubs such as Batley would inevitably fall away. The architect of the change, Maurice Lindsay, said the game was “moving toward a city/large town league” with Newcastle and London viewed as essential areas for growth.
Labour can’t afford to lose any more of its Red Wall seats, and rugby league cannot afford to lose any of its supporters
In 1995 the old and the new rugby league worlds collided when Wigan were drawn away at Batley in the Challenge Cup. At the time, Wigan were the “Galácticos” of British sport with giants such as Shaun Edwards, Martin Offiah, Jason Robinson, Va’aiga Tuigamala and Frano Botica amongst their ranks. Batley, meanwhile, had 46-year-old player-coach Jeff Grayshon in their team. Wigan offended their hosts by complaining that the pitch was nothing more than “a muddy morass”. And because the ground had a reduced capacity — and could not accommodate Wigan and their army of supporters — the club decided to hire a camera crew and beam the match back to supporters at Central Park. Batley fought back: “We will not just lie down and let Wigan walk all over us.” Wigan hammered them 70-4 and the pair haven’t played each other since.
In the intervening years, the bonds which once tied the rugby league clubs together have fractured. The events that used to unite the various components of the sport — the amateur game, the Kangaroo tours, the trips to Wembley — have dwindled in scale and significance. To some, the once in a lifetime windfall from Sky Sports has been wasted trying to create expansionist clubs at the expense of boosting the areas where the game is already widespread. Internationally, there seems to be little interest in the fortunes of the England side in comparison to the Great Britain sides of the past.
However, the ambition to strengthen the elite competition has not panned out the way that many had envisioned. Of the founding members of Super League — Bradford, Halifax, London, Oldham, Paris and Workington — have either declined in stature or disappeared entirely. London Broncos — once bankrolled by Richard Branson — have suffered a dramatic drop in attendances in the past year. Now some estimates put it at less than 250. Against all the odds, Batley’s support has remained solid, and a victory over York and a hard-fought loss to Halifax last weekend has some dreaming of a first crack at the Super League.
Batley proudly boasts of having the “oldest rugby league ground in the world” — from a match in 1895 that predates the birth of the Labour Party. It is a claim that makes supporters proud of Batley, “even though Wakefield have disputed it”. Arriving at Mount Pleasant, you are quickly welcomed into the club with open arms, as the volunteers — who maintain the upkeep of the ground – give you a history of the place. There is a pride in Batley’s survival against the odds and a desire to keep the stadium going for the wider community. They are not joking when they claim that they wouldn’t trade Mount Pleasant for Wigan’s “soulless” DW Stadium. They are as proud of their part-time players — for the efforts just to get on the pitch after a week of work — as any supporter is of a superstar player.
In his brilliant 2016 book on the club, Underdogs, Tony Hannan spent a year with the team and found that the club is as vital to the lifeblood of the community as it has ever been. The Batley sporting foundation runs community fitness programmes for local residents for just £2. They offer boxing sessions to aid health and well-being. The “Move Enjoy Network” offers walking groups for men over the age of 30 to keep people engaged with each other and combat loneliness and mental health in men. Without the club, supporters claim “there would be nothing left here for people to do”.
But there is an obvious fear about what will happen to the club over the next few years now that money is tight across the entire game. A reduced deal from Sky Sports at the top level means that even less money will be filtered down to the second tier. As a result, the game looks set to enter another period of turbulence. There is a desire by some to finally break with the traditional structures. Batley and teams like Leigh and Featherstone are seen as an economic drag on the game and even the possibility of them entering the top league is too much for some. The fear is that, without the money coming in, the heritage teams — the last link to the industrial past — may be the next institution to disappear.
For now, the divides remain, and the future looks ever more uncertain
For the expansionists, hope for the future once rested on the shoulders of the Toronto Wolfpack and the prospect of a mega US/Canadian broadcast deal. Often framed in conflict with the game’s traditions, you might expect Batley supporters to be some of the most vocal critics of the venture. But there was a general consensus that they had been good for the sport and good for Batley. “More supporters than you’d think” had taken the opportunity to go on a “once in a lifetime trip” to Canada when Batley played them. Those who could afford the trip had been blown away by the hospitality of their hosts and the gameday experience. There was a sadness that it had not worked out for them. Perhaps then, to paraphrase the late Jo Cox, the expansionists and the traditionalists have “more in common” than is often said.
How both the “people’s game” and the “people’s party” harness the common ground will be crucial to their survival as the twin pillars of working-class life, as they were in these towns for much of the last one hundred years. Just as the Labour Party cannot afford to lose any more of its Red Wall seats to the Tories, rugby league cannot afford to lose any of its supporters. To some, the talk of a “managed decline” of both institutions is premature. Historians point to similar arguments made in the 1950s and the 1980s, which were then preceded by a dramatic reversal in fortunes. But for now, the divides remain, and the future looks ever more uncertain.
Enjoying The Critic online? It's even better in print
Try five issues of Britain’s newest magazine for £10Subscribe