Analysis Politics

Security for Starmer?

Hannah Boyle analyses the result of the recent Batley and Spen by-election

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Image Credit: Jessica Taylor

Following the highly anticipated by-election on 1 July 2021, Kim Leadbeater was elected as the new Member of Parliament for Batley and Spen in West Yorkshire. Leadbeater, the Labour Party candidate and sister of former MP Jo Cox, was able to win the seat with a slim majority of 323 votes following her six-week local campaign.

Leadbeater’s win was far from a given, gaining 13,296 votes, with the Conservative Party Candidate, Ryan Stephenson, close behind with 12,973. George Galloway, former Labour MP who also stood in the seat, came in third with 8,264 votes. Turn out in general remained low, with 47.6 percent of the electorate returning 37,786 ballots out of a potential 79,373.

Leadbeater ran a campaign focused on local issues – her main argument being that she is from Batley and Spen, for Batley and Spen. As a local resident, she aimed to understand the concerns of the constituents and focused on the small things that matter to local communities, not the national issues that often dominate Westminster. Her local focus provided the opportunity for local success.

That is not to say Leadbeater’s campaign was without issue, and a majority win was not always a given for Labour despite holding the seat with former MP, Tracy Brabin in 2019.

The constituency election involved controversial literature produced by Jayda Fransen, former leader of Britain First, as well as alleged harassment of activists and targeted eggings which made national headlines.

With Leadbeater officially sworn in as a Member of Parliament on 5 July, she is now able to take her seat, participate in debates and receive her salary; she will carry on the legacy of her sister, who was murdered in the role in 2016 in Birstall, West Yorkshire.

This result has been hailed as a change in direction for both the Labour and Conservative Parties, with Labour Party Leader Keir Starmer hailing the win as “a victory of hope over division”, which he named “the battle of modern politics”. It is seen by many of Starmer’s supporters and critics that the result secured his position as Leader of the Labour Party for a bit longer, with rumours before the results that this was a make-or-break result. Having been leader of the party for just over a year, this result has been seen to delay any potential leadership challenges.

Current Chair of the Conservative Party and Member of Parliament for Cannock Chase, Amanda Milling, noted that Batley and Spen was “always [Labour’s] to lose and they have only just managed to hold on”. With Labour’s previous majority in the constituency at 3,525, the significant majority lost by Labour fuels concerns about the further collapse of the ‘red wall’ which began in 2019 and continued with the loss of Hartlepool earlier this year.

While both parties are able to claim aspects of victory, third place holder George Galloway, former Labour MP and founder of the Respect Party, has decided to legally challenge the result. James Giles, Galloway’s campaign manager has promised the “mother of all court cases” resting on the allegations that Galloway laughed while Leadbeater was challenged and followed over LGBT rights, which he claims damaged his reputation and chances in the polls.

It can be expected that the legal challenge will amount to very little, only a continuation of the pledge Galloway gave as an alternative option, willing to fight and challenge on behalf of those who supported him.

While not unexpected, the levels of votes acquired by Galloway from both former Labour and Conservative voters perhaps indicates a shift away from the traditional two-party battlegrounds usually seen in by-elections. Galloway captured a third way for voters, disillusioned by both traditional choices and the ongoing political point scoring over the past year.

This trend is not specific to Galloway; instead he acts as a template for any political battleground which has been considered complacent for too long- the electorate demand change, and seem to be supportive when it is offered. Perhaps, Galloway’s relative success should concern both the Labour Party and Conservatives for the next elections- as the electorate demand a shift, and yet they are not able to fulfil their demands.

For now, Batley and Spen represents a new chance for Labour, enabling Starmer to continue as leader without challenges to his authority from the far left of the party who wish to take the party back towards the Corbynite policy of 2019. It also looks like a turning point for “pandemic politics”. Here we can see that the return of normality, policy and personality becomes everything – but people are still demanding practicality – a point that may make-or-break the popularity of Starmer and Johnson.

Batley and Spen was a by-election fought on the politics of a pandemic and produced narrow victories for those fighting on the ground. Further updates on Galloway’s legal challenge and the impact of Labour’s victory on Starmer’s leadership are expected over the upcoming weeks and months. We can consider Batley and Spen to be a victory for Starmer, which will be needed in preparation for what comes next.

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