“If I could be half the MP Jo was, that will be pretty good going” – the touching words from Batley and Spen’s newest MP, Kim Leadbeater, as she reflected on winning the seat once held by her sister, Jo Cox.
For Labour to hold onto this seat (albeit with a reduced majority of 323 votes) in the face of a wave of media commentary that was predicting a Conservative win and for Leadbeater to finish third, this result will come as a wonderful surprise to Keir Starmer and his team. The backdrop for Labour was not promising, the seat could well have gone blue in 2019 had it not been for the Heavy Woollen District Independents who won 6,432 votes and the arrival of George Galloway this time around (who won over 8,000 votes) threatened to draw away much of Labour’s core vote in the seat.
Furthermore, the contest was an ugly and divided contest which saw candidates and activists threatened and an increase in the use of fake political advertising to undermine political opponents. Unfortunately, this by-election will always be overshadowed by these events, especially as we are just past the fifth-year anniversary of the murder of the seat’s former MP.
What factors led to the Labour being able to hold the seat and what will Batley and Spen mean for the wider political environment?
- A local candidate – Kim Leadbeater was the only candidate on the ballot to live locally and clearly holds strong ties to the local community, she stood calm when abused by those opposed to LGBT+ education in schools and did not let the media storm around the by-election phase her.
- Get out the Vote – The “GOTV” operation could well be the difference given the tight margins, Labour had 400 activists on polling day, while Conservative Home described the governing party’s effort as having “serious problems”.
- The Matt Hancock scandal – Hancock was one of the most prominent figures in the Government due to the pandemic. The affair with his aide – while breaking Covid restrictions he had been the face of – cut through well beyond the Westminster bubble, leading most newspaper front pages over the weekend and spreading far across social media. It certainly could have kept Conservative voters at home or seen them shift to Leadbeater.
- The smaller parties – The Lib Dems lost over 1,000 votes compared to their performance in 2019, while the Greens dropped out of the contest due to historic homophobic tweets from their candidate. Both factors could well have tipped Labour over the line.
The result will give Keir Starmer breathing room, the Labour leader had been faced with speculation of manoeuvres against him, not least from “supporters” of his Deputy, Angela Rayner according to The Times this week. Starmer has already made big changes to his internal team bringing on board veterans from the last Labour Government, as well as a shake-up to the MPs leading on campaigning with Shabana Mahmood and Connor McGinn said to have already made an impact in this by-election. The win will take a lot of pressure of the Labour Leader and provide him with a much smoother time at party conference this year. Although there will be celebrations from Labour today, there are still signs of their decline in these seats, the Conservatives saw a 2.9% swing towards them, which shows the work Starmer still has to do to show he can guide the party back to power.
In Downing Street, following his triumphant victory in Hartlepool, Boris Johnson has been shown he can lose political contests in both the north and south and that the vaccine boost will not last forever. There will be questions over the Conservative’s local campaign operation, but the PM should also pause for thought about his handling of the Hancock affair and what longer-term consequences it could have for his government.
However, whilst there will be disappointment, Johnson will be happy with how close the result was and the opportunity to target the seat at the next election. Given Labour has to win 120 seats on top of holding their current seats to win power at the next election, the result won’t cause too many sleepless nights at Number 10 just yet.