Exclusive: Batley free speech rally banned by town’s Labour council

A free speech rally planned in advance of the Batley and Spen by-election has been banned by the town’s Labour-held council after officials said it was not Covid-secure.

Organisers of the rally, which intended to debate the controversial use of a cartoon of the Prophet Mohammed in a local school earlier this year, were told their outdoor event could not go ahead because it had not been assessed by the council’s “Safety Advisory Group”.

Laurence Fox, the former Lewis actor turned free speech campaigner, intended to debate George Galloway and Paul Halloran, a former candidate in Batley and Spen, in Batley’s marketplace on Thursday evening.

The organisers say that although their event has been cancelled, the council did not intervene in demonstrations outside Batley Grammar School earlier this year – when campaigners protested against the use of the cartoon of the Prophet Mohammed.

An investigation found that the teacher who used the image did not intend to cause offence to Muslim students, but he has been forced into hiding for his own safety after he was threated by activists.

Speaking to The Telegraph on Wednesday night, Mr Fox said he had contacted West Yorkshire Police about his event and was told it could go ahead.

He claimed the Labour-held council had “cancelled free speech, and shut down the debate that is so important to the people of this country”.

“This is an attack on Western democratic values,” he said. “This is an attack on everything that we must fight for, for our children’s well being, and I’m not going to stop.

“So I very much look forward to being in the marketplace tomorrow, and I very much look forward to sharing a message of positivity and inclusivity.”

The row over the event comes after weeks of campaigning in Batley and Spen, where Sir Keir Starmer is fighting to keep control of the constituency.

The constituency has a large Muslim population, and race and religion has been a controversial topic in the seat during the campaign. Candidates have distributed leaflets with their position on the Israel-Palestine and Kashmir border conflicts.

The Labour candidate, Kim Leadbeater, is the sister of Jo Cox, the seat’s former MP who was murdered during the Brexit referendum campaign in 2016.

The latest polling suggests Ms Leadbeater is trailing the Tory candidate, Ryan Stephenson, by six points.

Kirklees Council and West Yorkshire Police were contacted for comment.

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