Written by Niall Hawkins
Sir Keir Starmer, pictured here in 2013, hailed Labour's recent victory in Batley and Spen as proof that the party was 'back.'
I wasn’t expecting Labour to win the Batley and Spen by-election. Most people weren’t. Following the polls and the unsurprising ability of George Galloway to galvanise significant support off the back of Keir Starmer's lacklustre performance as party leader, the opinion polls were predicting a Labour loss, albeit a narrow one. In the end, the predictions weren’t far off. Kim Leadbeater held the seat for Labour by a pitiful 323 votes (35.3%) with the Tories coming second, capturing 34.4%.
Galloway, a boon to the Tories, was clearly the main threat to Labour securing a safe majority and his Workers Party of Britain secured a substantial 21.9%. This was no victory for Labour. Starmer's claims in the aftermath that ‘Labour is coming home’ and that the party was ‘back’ should be dismissed as empty rhetoric, a common theme in political discourse nowadays.
And for many in Labour this ‘victory’ is a poisoned chalice, or at least a mixed blessing. Some were even getting excited about this potential loss and the chance it would bring to embark on a further climb up the greasy pole. Batley and Spen could have been a turning point. A loss which would have served as the final death knell for a leader who, despite his many abilities and integrity, has failed to bring forth any tangible Labour recovery despite the government's abhorrent performance since the beginning of the pandemic.
In the weeks before Batley and Spen, and in the aftermath of Hartlepool, things weren’t looking good for Starmer. They are still fragile now, of course. Rumours of a potential leadership challenge from the likes of Dawn Butler or Angela Rayner were tantalizing to many who have been deeply disappointed with the Labour leadership over the past year. George Galloway ran for the explicit purpose of ousting Starmer from leadership by forcing a Labour loss.
If you are of Galloway's ilk, the strategy makes sense. Any sensible leader would resign after a second loss of such consequence. The Tories may well whittle the Labour numbers down to under 200 seats by 2024 if things continue in such a way and Batley and Spen is by no means a safe seat whilst Starmer remains in charge.
Labour should be concerned about Batley and Spen and they shouldn’t allow the holding of the seat to ease any worries or fears. This result should inspire such thoughts, not quell them. Similar to the Hartlepool result, Batley and Spen goes against the grain of political tradition that the opposition doesn’t lose by-elections. If Hartlepool was a catastrophic loss, Batley and Spen was a tainted and insecure victory.
Whilst Hartlepool saw Labour voters either failing to turnout or voting Tory, Batley and Spen saw Galloway create a significant split in Labours vote which should not be taken lightly. His success is the sole proof Labour needs that Starmer's leadership has done nothing to heal Labour’s internal divides and that the calamity of 2019 is by no means a thing of the past. It is very much repeatable, and the Tories will be counting on that and divisions of this kind for their future victories which will undoubtedly be landslides judging by the current state of affairs.
After the loss of Hartlepool and Labours fall from grace in the polls of the Chesham and Amersham by-election, all eyes were on Batley and Spen as an election which could have quickly tipped the balance out of Starmer's favour. And to some extent, Labour did shine in this election. Batley and Spen was fought far more diligently than Hartlepool especially in terms of the selection of an appropriate and competent candidate. That Kim Leadbeater is a phenomenal candidate and will make for a good MP there is no doubt. But the fact that her sister was Jo Cox should also not be lost on us; Labour wasn’t pulling any punches selecting her.
But now, with such a narrow victory, the question of whether Labour would have lost if the candidate had not held such standing in the community deserves a fair hearing. For it is true. Leadbeater was the only Labour candidate who could have won Batley and Spen. Starmer's botched attempt to scapegoat Angela Rayner after the Hartlepool loss and his ineffectual reshuffle of the Shadow cabinet had zero effect in Batley and Spen and Labour’s holding the seat is very much because of Leadbeater. Her mature, locally-focused campaign should be an example to many floundering ex-Labour MPs.
Labour’s celebrations of the ‘victory’ as a symbolic one overcoming divide and hate do ring true. But such sentiments can easily brush over the very real division, much of it caused by Galloway’s ability to capture a significant proportion of the constituencies Muslim-Asian demographic, voters Labour has taken for granted too long (something Galloway was very much aware of). The rainbow coalition and claims to representation of the working class are central to what makes Labour different from the Tories (in theory). Yet many in Batley and Spen were willing to vote for a man who has voted Conservative in the past and who is, by all accounts, politically despicable.
Batley and Spen could have been the very tough wakeup call for Labour. It would have forced a resignation from Starmer or at the very least a leadership challenge which he would have struggled to contend considering his current performance. If Starmer had succeeded in defeating a leadership challenge it might also have spurred him on enough to infuse the party with the very much needed flame it once burned in 2017. The aftermath of the Hartlepool loss proved that Labour would need a bigger shock to the system if real internal change were to be realised.
Akin to the Peterborough by-election win in 2019 the holding of Batley and Spen means Labour has an excuse for complacency and cheap rhetorical claims of ‘victory’ and ‘hope’. Questions over Sir Keir Starmer's leadership can be brushed under the rug and party rhetoric can continue to ignore the looming threat of Labour’s very existence being put at risk.
Peterborough was conclusive proof of the storm Corbyn’s Labour was going to face in December 2019. Starmer’s Labour has now had three such warning signs that under his leadership Labour is not an attractive alternative. But in the interests of retaining what power he has, and in preventing the ‘loony left’ from making a comeback, the Batley and Spen result is a negative one for Labour.
More so, the memory of victory in Batley and Spen may threaten to cloud the loss of Hartlepool which must be considered as far more of a shock to the system for Labour. Hartlepool had been a Labour seat since its inception in 1974. Whereas Batley and Spen has only been red since 1997. But whether the current leadership will really reflect upon such issues and nuances is questionable.
For the Tories, the result has added some more conclusive ingredients to a recipe which may keep Labour (or at least the Labour we know) out of power indefinitely. Such a recipe is deceptively simple. Utilisation of a third-party candidate to split the very much splittable centre-left, liberal and (old) Labour vote could keep Labour out of power for the foreseeable future.
There are other more complex components to this of course. Third parties are not necessary to split the Labour vote if the Tories can claim to represent the working class better than Labour or if their claims are seen as more convincing (which in some cases may be true). Yet the fundamentals are obvious. Labour doesn’t know where it stands and Keir’s claims that Labour has returned after retaining such a slim hold over Batley and Spen cannot be taken seriously.
The biggest takeaway from this election is that Starmer is now a lame duck leader. Considering the current predicament of Labour is not simply an inability to achieve power but a looming threat of extinction, Batley and Spen could have been the final yet necessary nail in a coffin which could have dramatically forced Labour to establish a difficult yet necessary path of intense soul searching and internal debate (often confused with civil war) that may one day defeat the Tories proper.
There is a lot to discuss around the Batley and Spen by-election. Galloway’s rhetoric surrounding Israel and Palestine and his anti-woke angle could be topics set to trouble Starmer’s labour and their place in many seats for a long time to come. Here, only time will tell but it is obvious that Labour is facing an identity crisis.
For now, we must deal with a far more precarious reality. Starmer could eek out some more time as leader and that, whilst it may not spell imminent disaster, it will only increase the time Labour will have to wait in opposition. Survival and direction are the primary issues Labour should be concerned about and that is where all efforts, hearts and minds must be aimed.
Photo source - Flickr (Chatham House)