The writing on the 'red wall' ?


Starmer's leadership faces crucial test in Batley and Spen by-election

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Image by Garry Knight

By Jacob Starr

In the 2019 general election, Labour lost a significant number of seats to the Tories in the so-called ‘red wall’, the large areas  in the north of England and Wales that have traditionally displayed high consistent electoral support for Labour. Under new leadership, Labour’s fortunes in the ‘red wall’ have only worsened, with poor results in recent local elections and defeat in May’s Hartlepool by-election. These developments epitomise a continued trend of the Tories capitalising on Labour’s troubles in its former strongholds.

This is the context for the upcoming Batley and Spen by-election, which is taking place on 1 July. A ‘red wall’ seat, Batley and Spen is located in the heart of West Yorkshire, and was formerly the seat of Labour MP Jo Cox, who was murdered by a far-right extremist in 2016. The by-election was called after the previous incumbent Labour MP Tracy Brabin was elected as the first Mayor of West Yorkshire in May.

The constituency is a predominately white working-class area, but also has a notable South Asian community, as well as some more suburban and conservative areas. Despite never winning overwhelmingly, Labour have won the constituency in every election since 1997. As a majority leave voting constituency, Labour’s Brexit stance, amongst other factors, creates issues for Labour, and provides the Tories with an opportunity to gain support.

The Labour candidate Kim Leadbeater, Jo Cox’s sister who is from the constituency, is hoping that her close connection to the community can prevent voters from moving away from Labour as they have done elsewhere. Meanwhile, Conservative candidate Ryan Stephenson is running on the government’s levelling up agenda, hoping that a desire for change will incentivise voters to switch from Labour to the Tories.

Other candidates have also announced their candidacy, notably former Labour MP and current Worker’s Party of Britain leader George Galloway, who’s pro-Palestinian stance has recently resonated with some of the Muslim community in the constituency who previously supported Labour, but have felt disillusioned with Starmer’s weak stance on the Israeli occupation of Palestine and the oppression of Palestinians.

A recent Salvation poll, conducted between 9 June and 17 June placed the Tories on 47 percent, while Labour trail behind on 41 percent, with Galloway appearing to be winning support from former Labour voters, polling on 6 percent. Likewise, the same poll reported that Johnson’s approval rating is at plus 18, while Starmer’s is down at minus 32.

This polling does break historical political trends in the region, as the Tory support base is evolving, demonstrated by the recent loss to the Liberal Democrats in the Chesham and Amersham by-election, which was previously believed to be a safe Tory seat. Several reasons could be contributing to the support for the Conservatives, such as the leaders' respective positions on Brexit, Starmer’s dwindling popularity amongst previous Labour voters, and the success of the vaccine rollout. Regardless, after Labour’s loss in Hartlepool, it would be an extreme political rarity for an opposition party to lose two by-elections to the governing party in such a short period.

Batley and Spen appears to represent another dilemma for Labour in their heartlands. Crucially, however, it is and will be interpreted as a failure of Keir Starmer’s leadership to continuously perform poorly in elections. Starmer’s position as Labour leader could become untenable. Meanwhile, the failure of Labour’s leadership is allowing the Conservatives to consolidate support in working-class areas.