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Tue 26 October 2021

A strong local campaign compensated for the party’s persistent national struggles but there is a long road ahead, says Mike Buckley

Labour’s win in the Batley and Spen by-election was unexpected. Survation’s polling of the constituency in mid-June had given the Conservatives a six-point lead; national polls told a similar story

The media narrative was that the contest would be a repeat of the recent Hartlepool by-election, won by the Conservatives, and the governing party would again unite a pro-Brexit vote that had been divided in 2019. The presence of George Galloway as a candidate, seen as likely to split the Labour vote, would finish Keir Starmer’s party off in the constituency, so the predictions went.

In reality, Labour survived due to a combination of luck, a good campaign, and sheer hard work. National Conservative popularity has waned over the past month, perhaps in response to the Delta COVID-19 variant and in the past week due to the Matt Hancock scandal. Boris Johnson’s party is not as popular as in May, when the Hartlepool contest was held. 

Nationally, Labour is failing to benefit from this, however. The party is “not remotely capitalising”, says pollster Keiran Pedley. The “public [are] unclear what Starmer is for and unconvinced he’d do better” than the Conservatives. 

Nevertheless, whereas the Hartlepool campaign felt lacklustre – in part due to being held on the same day as devolved and local elections, minimising the number of Labour activists able to take part – the party threw everything at Batley and Spen.

Picking Kim Leadbeater, the sister of the area’s former Labour MP Jo Cox, who was murdered by a far-right terrorist during the 2016 EU Referendum campaign, allowed Labour to run a campaign focused on local issues – crime, policing and safer streets – and its candidate’s back-story. 

If she spoke of a national role, it was as a “a strong, powerful voice prepared to speak up for” Batley and Spen. Her opponent, Conservative councillor Ryan Stephenson, ran a campaign based on his party’s 2019 General Election pitch, promising “more jobs, more police, more investment” and “a positive plan” to “build back better”.

That Labour nevertheless retained the seat is a testament to Leadbeater’s work in the constituency over the five years since her sister’s death. Anecdotally, it seems likely that the election was won on the day. Labour estimated that 400 activists were on the doorstep, executing an ‘expert’ operation to get out the vote. In contrast, Conservative activists thought that their operation had serious problems

Galloway’s attempt to harm Labour may have backfired. BBC Newsnight’s Lewis Goodall speculated after the vote that, while he may have taken some votes from Labour, he may have discouraged others from voting Conservative. His toxicity may have encouraged some to stick with Labour as the party best placed to prevent a Galloway win. One Conservative activist said that they had found “a lot of Conservative voters saying they’re not bothering or sick of a divisive campaign”.


The Long Road Ahead

But Labour should not celebrate too hard or for too long. The party’s majority fell in Batley and Spen from 3,525 in 2019 to 323 in 2021. It was almost 9,000 in 2017 and more than 6,000 in 2015. The swing yesterday was 2.9% against Labour and in favour of the Conservatives.

The party should not be losing ground to a Conservative Government, 11 years into its term, with a record of economic harm, division and – over the past year – its appalling handling of the COVID-19 pandemic. 

Mo Hussein, former Downing Street press chief under David Cameron, told BBC News that the Conservatives would not be too disheartened by the result. He believes that the party will be encouraged at the narrowness of the result and will see Labour’s win as premised on Leadbeater’s local popularity. 

“Johnson does not see Starmer as much of a challenge at all,” he said. “Johnson will think that this has been a Labour seat for 24 years that Labour has managed to hold, and that has much to do with Kim who took a courageous decision to stand. To win, Labour needs to take over 120 seats, in Scotland as well as England. There is a long road ahead for Labour.” 

Keir Starmer has won a reprieve from the growing tensions that had been mounting since his party’s poor performance in May’s elections, which had led to briefings of a leadership challenge.

He has since installed a new communications and strategy team, and its members certainly have work to do. Six in 10 Britons are unclear about what Starmer stands for, including 41% of 2019 Labour voters. His favourability is 20% – only three points above Matt Hancock and some way behind Johnson (33%) and Chancellor Rishi Sunak (38%). Starmer’s net favourability hit its lowest score in June, and continues to drift downwards. 

The by-election campaign highlighted specific areas where Labour is weak. The party is losing ground among Muslim voters, in part due to perceived missteps by Starmer. The campaign’s use of a leaflet depicting Boris Johnson with India’s nationalist Prime Minister, Narendra Modi, with the words: “Don’t risk a Tory MP who is not on your side” was described as ‘dog whistle racism’ by one of Labour’s own MPs, Navendu Mishra.

More fundamentally, Labour has no clear critique of the Conservatives’ programme or a vision for the future. Leadbeater’s campaign could have challenged the Conservatives on their own terms. Kirklees Council, of which Batley and Spen is part, for example has lost 60p in every £1 of funding from central government, making it the second-lowest funded of the 36 councils that cover large metropolitan areas. 

West Yorkshire gained more than 200 new police officers by mid-2020, but that rise did little to undo years of cuts. It’s “smoke and mirrors”, said the head of the West Yorkshire Police Federation Brian Booth. “We are nowhere near where we were – there are just over 200 extra officers but we will still be around 700 short on 10 years ago.” 

Conservative claims of ‘more jobs, more police, more investment’ are a cover for 11 years of cuts which, despite Johnson’s claims, are not only continuing but getting worse. Yet, Labour in Batley and Spen, as well as nationally, does little to highlight them. The same can be said for the damaging impact of Brexit, which is forecast to reduce the size of the Yorkshire and Humber economy by 5.4%; and the Government’s handling of the Coronavirus pandemic, which has led to one of the world’s worst public health and economic outcomes. 

Labour urgently needs to define itself and its critique of the Government. The Batley and Spen result is testament to Leadbeater’s popularity and Labour’s ability to run a strong local campaign. But, without a compelling national vision, it cannot be confident of victory at the next general election. There is still a lot more work to do.

Mike Buckley is director of the campaign group ‘Labour for a European Future’

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