July 2, 2021

If pundits these days still committed their thoughts to paper, the sound you’d have heard had you been awake at dawn this morning would have been reams of the stuff being ripped to shreds as piles and piles of pre-prepared copy on Labour’s dreadful defeat in Batley and Spen was rendered instantly redundant by Kim Leadbeater’s surprise victory.

This wasn’t how things were supposed to go. True, the Government had had a pretty torrid time of it over the weekend thanks both to Matt Hancock and to Boris Johnson’s failure to sack him straight away. But the canny appointment of Sajid Javid was supposed to have steadied the ship, indeed set it sailing full speed ahead for 19 July when a swathe of Coronavirus restrictions now look certain to be lifted.

Even better, the Government could point to some seriously good news from Sunderland, where Nissan, in defiance of all the Brexit-hating doomsters and gloomsters, is committing to building a gigafactory and launching a new model at its plant there.

Meanwhile, over on the other side of the fence, the knives were being sharpened for the supposedly useless Sir Keir Starmer, with mounting excitement that the ongoing beef between him and his salt-of-the-earth deputy, Angela Rayner, might produce a leadership challenge. And then there was Labour’s hard Left, some of whose social media stars were salivating at the prospect of another Hartlepool-style humiliation providing them with yet more proof that the party they love (or at least started loving in 2015) has supposedly lost “the working class” by dumping the socialist policies that won it two stunning moral victories at the general elections of 2017 and 2019.

No one can say for sure why things didn’t play out the way the way the pundits and, for what they’re worth, the betting markets, thought they would. But these are my best guesses.

First up, Labour had an exceptional candidate — a woman who is not just hyper-local and highly personable but who, because of her sister, who was murdered back in 2016 when serving as MP for Batley and Spen, could claim a profound emotional connection to the place that must have swayed some voters (and not just previous Labour voters) her way.

Second, Labour’s ground campaign, turbo-charged by the MP newly appointed by Starmer to be its National Campaign Coordinator, Shabana Mahmood, did a bang-up job of identifying and getting out the vote.

Third, the Conservatives can’t have been helped by the Hancock shenanigans. But, probably more importantly, their ground campaign was apparently a bit of a dog’s breakfast – a reminder that, in a close race, having boots on the ground can sometimes make the difference. It’s all too easily forgotten that, while the Tories may have grown their vote in the “red wall”, they haven’t necessarily grown their grassroots membership there.

Fourth, the intervention and non-intervention of other candidates didn’t make the kind of difference that many had forecast. Much was made of both the prospects and the appalling antics of that inveterate publicity-seeker George Galloway, who back in 2012 managed to bag himself a by-election victory in the Labour seat of Bradford West by using the same divisive tactics. Clearly, those tactics still have considerable traction: he won over a fifth of the vote. But they may also have driven others to turn to Leadbeater in disgust.

It is also entirely possible that, by standing, Galloway siphoned off some the votes which the Conservatives hoped (perhaps even assumed) would go to them as a result of the decision by the Heavy Woollen District Independents not to stand. Meanwhile, the lack of a Green Party candidate may well have seen a few of the nearly 700 people who voted for it in 2017 and 2019 plump for Labour. Which way, incidentally, the nearly 2,500 voters who supported the Lib Dems in 2019 went, who knows?

The same goes, perhaps, for what all this means. Strictly speaking, the line being briefed by the Tories to anyone who’ll listen – “This is not a Labour win. It’s a Labour hold” – is obviously accurate. But – partly due to Labour’s excellent expectations management – that’s not at all how it feels.

Nor is how it will sound to the majority of people who are sensible enough not to pay too much attention to politics. All they will hear is that Keir Starmer won a close race, giving him some breathing space and a chance to put things right.

Whether he can – whether Batley and Spen can be a turning point and not just a turn up for the books – remains to be seen. As the ancient Greek historian, Polybius, very wisely observed, “Those who know how to win are much more numerous than those who know how to make proper use of their victories.”