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How Labour salvaged Batley and Spen Will this victory be a turning point for Starmer?

Kim Leadbeater won by a whisker. Credit: Christopher Furlong/Getty

Kim Leadbeater won by a whisker. Credit: Christopher Furlong/Getty


July 2, 2021   3 mins

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.”


Tim Bale is Professor of Politics at Queen Mary University of London and Director of the Mile End Institute.

ProfTimBale

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Katharine Eyre
Katharine Eyre
2 years ago

I think it’s troubling for both parties. For Labour because its lead there has melted to almost nothing and for the Tories because they’re not a shoo-in there; the Red Wall hasn’t crumbled entirely and they will not be forgiven everything. If Labour manages to convincingly reverse back out of the cesspool of identity politics it’s been spinning its wheels in for the past few years, I’m sure the good people of the North will be willing to bury the hatchet and return if the Tories don’t keep the promises they’ve made.
This election should give pause for thought for the entire country for the toxic atmosphere in which it was fought and the nasty tactics which were used. Not an edifying spectacle.

Last edited 2 years ago by Katharine Eyre
Chauncey Gardiner
Chauncey Gardiner
2 years ago
Reply to  Katharine Eyre

Right on.
Labour is execrable. The Tories are execrable. Both represent the class of our best-and-brightest, technocratic overlords, no? But, if that’s right, then we have a puzzle: Why do we keep voting for this stuff? Is there not an opportunity for some party to enter the political market with an offering suited to a large, underserved segment of that market? Or maybe the market is not underserved, and the electorate is mostly happy to recycle its technocratic overlords, whether red or blue, through the seats of power?

Katharine Eyre
Katharine Eyre
2 years ago

I think there is ample opportunity for a brand new party – during the pandemic, I’ve often thought of the possibility of a new liberal party. But the wish for some new party to come and shake stuff up is one thing, whether anyone will have the drive and determination to take ti up and turn it into reality is quite another. Until then, it’s the same two nag race (“horse” currently seems a bit too elegant a metaphor for the Tories and Labour currently).

Prashant Kotak
Prashant Kotak
2 years ago
Reply to  Katharine Eyre

I hope you mean ‘liberal’ in the true sense of the word, the older liberal tradition which has been completely betrayed by the party currently bearing the name, by both the doppelganger leadership and membership. Because there is nothing remotely liberal about, for example, Layla Moran.

Katharine Eyre
Katharine Eyre
2 years ago
Reply to  Prashant Kotak

That’s exactly what I meant.

Michael Richardson
Michael Richardson
2 years ago
Reply to  Katharine Eyre

If Labour manages to convincingly reverse back out of the cesspool of identity politics it’s been spinning its wheels in for the past few years

That is the first half. The second is to talk about the economy in a way that is meaningful to potential voters.
As a centre-left voter, I’m not holding my breath. In the meantime, my voting is, regrettably, tactical: keep labour out.

Last edited 2 years ago by Michael Richardson
Jon Redman
Jon Redman
2 years ago

Exactly Michael. While these are not proper Tories, at least they’re not Labour.

John K
John K
2 years ago

IMO there is almost nothing that can be learnt from this by-election and there is little point over-analysing it. It is a complete one-off with no read through elsewhere; two weeks earlier or later and the Tories would probably have won.

Andrea X
Andrea X
2 years ago

I don’t see how you can be so full of praise. Had they lost by 400 votes would that be marked as an abject failure?
Ok the Tories didn’t win, but certainly neither did labour. It won’t be catastrophic for labour because it didn’t go as badly as feared. Big deal. Is that going to be enough to make things better for labour? I doubt it.

Last edited 2 years ago by Andrea X
David Owsley
David Owsley
2 years ago

35% of the vote…less than 1% winning margin…hmmm, yes, the ideal candidate. Turning point…NOT
P.S. well done GG (21.9%) for getting 6 or 7x the Lib Dem vote LOL.

Last edited 2 years ago by David Owsley
Richard Slack
Richard Slack
2 years ago

I have been following politics for decades and can just about remember the Orpington By-election in 1962. I have yet to see a by-election which has seriously ever changed anything; the only one I can recall where the winner subsequently held the seat in future elections was Bermondsey.
Everyone loves a by-election except the people living in the constituency who get heartily sick of the influx of people, celebrities, cameras and microphones and, as a result do not bother to vote. If the election has been caused by a sitting member dying then people accept that another election is needed but if the sitting MP has suddenly decided they would rather do something else, then they are reluctant to vote. As an example, in 1978 Labour lost the then ultra-safe seat of Ashfield, in a by-election caused when the MP decided there was something he would rather do, but held the more marginal Grimsby where the MP had died.
The fact that, if Kim Leadbetter had got 350 votes less then the fact that the headlines would be completely different indicates just how superficial such analyses are. There are complex movements in politics based around a population that is changing in terms of composition, employment and class and how this will pan out will not be clear for a while. This by-election proves nothing.

Leon Wivlow
Leon Wivlow
2 years ago
Reply to  Richard Slack

If the Tories had managed to take a further 170 votes from Labour she would have lost – that’s how close it was.

Francis MacGabhann
Francis MacGabhann
2 years ago

Strikes me the voters had an impossible dilemma, choosing between two clown cars. Just close your eyes and put an X somewhere on the ballot paper.

James Rix
James Rix
2 years ago

This feels like a turning point for Starmer, but no perhaps the one he is thinking about or wants. The progressive agenda that has been dominating the party will now face its hardest challenges as the needs and wants of two of its main factions have been shown to be incompatible during this campaign. How can Starmer keep LGBTQ+ activists and their ilk happy with progressive policy on gender etc whilst keeping themselves the main party of muslims in the country, who’s main teachings are the anathema of the other side? If he turns either way, he risks losing key seats. Does he have to pick a side? Or can he walk the tightrope of the two? I guess only time will tell.

Jon Redman
Jon Redman
2 years ago
Reply to  James Rix

The problem with identity politics is exactly this. If two of your client groups hate each other, you don’t look like a party any more.

James Rix
James Rix
2 years ago
Reply to  Jon Redman

Totally agree. It’s a patchwork alliance that has very little in common other than their objection to some perceived enemy.

Charles Hedges
Charles Hedges
2 years ago
Reply to  James Rix

Also many blue collar workers who are doers do not like the character of middle class public sector woke arts graduates who are talkers.

Jon Redman
Jon Redman
2 years ago

I know I bang on about this, but the fact is that the best guide to the result of the next general election is the result of the last.
Since 1945 there has been only one occasion when a government with a working majority going into the election was defeated and replaced by the opposition with its own majority. It was in 1970, when Heath defeated Wilson, but the electorate had changed since 1966 so that 18-year-olds could vote. When Attlee lost in 1951 he had only a 5-seat majority (he called the election to increase it).
Johnson’s 80-seat majority, which is 100 on fair boundaries, ensures another Conservative majority whenever he calls the election. Effectively he won them two terms in office. Labour can’t overturn that – if they could, it would be obvious by now, but nothing about them says they’re a government in waiting.
The only question for Labour is thus whether they can erode that majority to make it possible to win the one after that. If not, and they achieve only a 2001 result in which the previous outcome is simply repeated, the Tories get another 80 to 100-seat majority – which means two further terms from 2024.
Against that backdrop, Hartlepool, Amersham and Batley don’t mean a thing.
Incidentally, I don’t know why anyone would look at betting markets for clues. If you look at the comments on politicalbetting, they’re all politically partisan, not particularly smart and they clearly bet on what they want to happen, not what they think actually will, whether they realise it or not.

Penelope Lane
Penelope Lane
2 years ago
Reply to  Jon Redman

You describe what will inevitably happen if the system goes on functioning in the same old way. But in these unstable times, do you think it will? Or do you think some sort of “unpredictability” factor needs to be included in calculations henceforth?

Jon Redman
Jon Redman
2 years ago
Reply to  Penelope Lane

Well, I think we’ve had sufficient upheavals of one sort or another over the last 75 years for this rule to be pretty reliable; Suez, Falklands, Iraq, Brexit. The rule still worked and it works whoever’s in government. The only time it’s been wrong was when the electorate had been redefined, so it was a different demos from one to the next.
Labour were a minority in 1979 and lost; Major was a minority in 1997 and lost; Labour were epically exposed in 2010 and polled in the 20s at one point, but because Brown had a 60-seat majority, Cameron wasn’t able to do better than a hung Parliament. It is a remarkably resilient trend.
If the Conservatives were about to lose, a number of straws would be evident in the wind already. They’d be collapsing in the polls; their leader would be rated below the LotO; there’d be some epic failure to their name that the opposition was exploiting; that opposition would look dynamic and ready to govern. Not one of those is true. They are ahead in the polls and have increased their vote in the last six elections, the LotO is an empty suit, there’s nothing they’ve screwed up that Labour would have done better, and Labour is navel gazing, riddled with anti-Semitism, ripping itself apart and full of hate-mongering nonentities anxious to stage a coup.
The next one is thus nailed on, and I reckon there is a good chance the Tories will increase or maintain their majority – meaning the one after that is nailed on, too.

Last edited 2 years ago by Jon Redman
Penelope Lane
Penelope Lane
2 years ago
Reply to  Jon Redman

So what would you do if you were Scotland?
And sorry, excuse my ignorance, but who/what are the LotO?

Last edited 2 years ago by Penelope Lane
Jon Redman
Jon Redman
2 years ago
Reply to  Penelope Lane

Sorry, LotO = Leader of the Opposition.
Scotland? Where’s that?

Penelope Lane
Penelope Lane
2 years ago
Reply to  Jon Redman

LotO—Ah, poor Keir
 thankyou.
As for Scotland, last thing I heard it was on the outer edges of a place whose name at the moment escapes me


Matt Spencer
Matt Spencer
2 years ago
Reply to  Penelope Lane

Ouch…well played!

Mark Gourley
Mark Gourley
2 years ago
Reply to  Jon Redman

Yes, I can see all that myself too – but “events, dear boy, events” to quote one great Tory PM of the past.

Barry Wetherilt
Barry Wetherilt
2 years ago

I guess you thought Corbyn won the 2017 election too?

Prashant Kotak
Prashant Kotak
2 years ago

What the pundits are missing, is that this is a supremely good result for the Tories. I don’t mean by that the fact that there was a swing to them while in government (pretty rare in itself). I mean it guarantees Starmer will now remain in place as leader until the next election, something almost as good as keeping Corbyn in place, and as good as keeping Miliband in place. Because Labour don’t have it in them to junk a sitting leader close to the end of the election cycle. The one chance Labour had of ditching Starmer and reinventing themselves before the next election has just gone.

Never interrupt your enemy while he is making a mistake, said Napoleon Bonaparte (and if he didn’t he should have). Just an outlandish conspiracy thought: I wonder if the Tories deliberately didn’t put much effort into winning this by-election.

Last edited 2 years ago by Prashant Kotak
Jon Redman
Jon Redman
2 years ago
Reply to  Prashant Kotak

Agree with your general theme although I’m not sure about your conspiracy theory. For me, the real gift to the Tories was when Starmer became leader.
On paper, he was a credible if grossly inexperienced candidate. He should have spent this Parliament learning how to oppose and developing a voice and recognition for something other than tolerating anti-Semitism and trying to sabotage Brexit. The scale of Corbyn’s 2019 defeat means they’ll lose again in 2023/4, so he could have stepped up after that and maybe been in with a shout for 2028/9.
Instead Labour’s dumb, dumb, dumb membership squandered their most plausible possibility. He’s now going to be the mug in post who gets to lose in 2024 and is forced to quit. If Starmer were a boxer, he’d have advertising on the soles of his boots.
I reckon Boris will go for it in late 2023 because at that point “Butcher” Burnham and Sadiq Khan won’t even be MPs. They’ll still be mayors, so when Starmer quits after his defeat, they won’t be eligible to stand to succeed him. Instead the field will be Stalinist chavs like Rayner, Butler and Burgon, which pretty much puts 2028 into the bag too.

jill dowling
jill dowling
2 years ago

Labour were lucky, nothing else to be said really – other than no brainier Rayner must be disappointed

Cheryl Jones
Cheryl Jones
2 years ago

300 odd votes is nothing, couid have been swayed by a few votes from For Britain, or George Galloway. It’s no longer a Labour stronghold, the Blue Wall is holding.

Penelope Lane
Penelope Lane
2 years ago

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.
An important point. It would suggest that the only predictable thing for the future is perhaps ever greater unpredictability?

Stevie Quick
Stevie Quick
2 years ago

I am enjoying watching Galloway’s trumpian reaction to losing