It’s all go in Yorkshire, sitha lad. Two events with hardly unexpected results. In the heart of the West Riding, (never West Yorkshire), Labour held onto Batley and Spen at last week’s by-election, astonishing the commentariat, and a bit further north, Morrisons, Yorkshire’s very own supermarket chain, looks like falling prey to asset strippers, astonishing the City. In either case, it is not clear why there should be such astonishment, so worth a Shaw Sheet nose around to see what is going on.
Batley and Spen first. This constituency covers the heart of the old woollen manufacturing business, an industry not quite dead (unlike cotton spinning on the other side of the Pennines) but certainly highly decayed and not economically significant. Batley and Spen sound like names being lined up for a Monty Python joke, even more so when the roll call of old mill towns in the constituency is read out: Cleckheaton, Liversidge, Heckmondwike, Norristhorpe, Birkenshaw. We could go on but we are here to analyse the election result, not to regale readers with funny town names.
The mills have mostly gone, or are converted to other uses, and a significant proportion of local inhabitants are the descendants of those who came from the Indian subcontinent in the later part of the last century, many of Muslim faith. B and S was a relatively safe Conservative seat up until the 1980’s when changing demographics and some boundary changes took it to Labour and it has become a relatively safe Labour seat, with the Conservative vote generally falling at each election (though reversing that trend in 2019). In 2016 it achieved notoriety after the terrible murder of local M.P. and thoroughly good person Jo Cox during the referendum campaign that year. This by-election was the result of her successor Tracey Brabin stepped down on becoming Labour Mayor of West Yorkshire. The received wisdom is of course that the north means Red Wall and red wall seats are now prime Boris territory. So this was marked down as “Tory gain” as soon as the by-election was called. A bunch of southern journalists arrived to watch the triumph of the Blondinista Tendency, amusing themselves by digging out and “exposing” the sheer nastiness of the campaign being fought in the deep valleys and hillside towns with funny names. Was it so very nasty? The local press mostly did not think so. There were certainly some misleading and aggressive leaflets circulating (not totally unknown in most elections and often coming from the LibDem local offices). But what the media most wanted was to be able to signal the end of Keir Starmer’s reign at Labour and to hammer further nails in the coffin of the people’s party.
That, we now know, was not to be. And it was always a bit unlikely. Occasionally we may have mentioned here that it does no harm, now and again, to look at the figures – that is to say, the actual votes cast. Last week the turnout of voters was 47% of those eligible, compared with 66% in 2019. Sixteen candidates presented themselves, some well meaning, some out to impress their mums or get on television, some no doubt just mad. Only three mattered, the Labour candidate Kim Leadbetter, sister of Jo Cox; the Tory Ryan Stephenson; and the Workers Party representative, George Galloway. Yup, that George Galloway, here campaigning in the interests of extreme socialism and Islam. Mr Galloway, who is very irritating but not entirely stupid, presumably knows these causes are fundamentally incompatible, but manages to attract supporters anyway, and duly lured 8264 voters to mark his name on the ballot, mostly, one suspects, rather than Ms Leadbetter.
That reduced the Labour majority to 323 against the 7,000 it might otherwise have been. Compared with 2019 the Tory vote was 6,000 or so down and Labour 9,000 down. In 2019 there was also an independent scoring 6,000 votes. So proportionately the Tories did better than in 2019, but not much, and Mr Galloway came nowhere near winning, but certainly narrowed the Labour margin of victory. (That George has apparently started a legal action to force a recount suggest that his interests were primarily not far-Left Socialism or Islam, but the destruction of Starmer.) Sir Keir though lives to fight another day, and some time soon we will explain here why we think he may eventually triumph. The Red Wall tide may have run its course and Mr Johnson would be well advised to examine what Conservatives really want, what they really really want (sung by a daughter of Leeds*) before the LibDems take many disaffected southern Tory seats and Labour win back the northern and Midland ones.
So, north to Bradford. Or to the outskirts of almost any major town in England. Wm Morrison was famously founded by William Morrison in 1899 with a butter market stall; he married latish in life and his son Kenneth, (always “Ken”) ran it until 2008, a remarkable record of two men running a business for 109 years. Ken was a true Yorkshireman, blunt, careful with the pennies and even more so with the pounds, and not a great delegator, though he gathered a small group of exceptionally able executives around him. He took the business public in 1967, mainly to give access to cheaper capital and away from borrowing from annoying bankers. But those bloody bankers came back to annoy hm, particularly after Morrison’s takeover of rival Safeway in 2004. Ken knew what he was doing, but the men in suits thought for a while he didn’t and forced him into board changes he did not like (the Safeway purchase became a triumph within six years).
Morrison’s has changed cautiously after Ken retired, in spite of turmoil in the boardroom, stirred up by Sir Ken, as he became, lambasting the board from among the ordinary shareholders at AGM’s. (“I have something like 1,000 bullocks and, having listened to your presentation, Dalton (the CEO), you’ve got a lot more bullshit than me” went down well with shareholders, if not his former colleagues.)
But the Morrison method has, alas, turned the chain into a prime target for a new generation of parasites, those board room raiders and corporate pirates now dressed as hedge funds and value trusts. Morrison’s treats its suppliers and staff well, paying a little more than the usual supermarket dollar to both, buying locally where it can, and selling good products at value prices. Its shoppers are mostly loyal, especially in the north, and its staff turnover lower than many of its rivals. And it owns many of its premises, unlike other retailers who have sold them off to jack up returns to shareholders. To investors looking for margins to squeeze and assets to flog off and lease back to return capital fast to its backers it is a dream. A month or so ago the board was approached by Clayton, Dubilier, and Rice, an American fund; that offer was turned down, but then up popped another, the private equity fund Fortress with a larger trolly full of cash. The board accepted that one, but last weekend along came a third fund, Apollo, with yet more cash. And there are rumours of a fourth about to pounce.
The shareholders may get richer, the board will, even the purchasers may be able to afford more and larger yachts. But it seems unlikely that the news is good for staff, customers, or suppliers. Ken would have a thing or two to say, though probably not things we could print.
*Scary Spice. Scary went to Hollywood but has returned to Leeds