In politics, things change quickly. Less than a week ago, with the polls looking worrying for the Labour Party’s chances of holding Batley and Spen, rumours were swirling that Labour MP Dawn Butler was planning a summer leadership challenge against Keir Starmer. Yet, when Kim Leadbeater pulled off a surprise result – in the face of vitriolic abuse from some sections of the constituency – the tide seems to have turned and it is now Boris Johnson under pressure.
Despite being a Labour-held seat since 1997, the Conservatives were backed to pick up another blue brick in the crumbling red wall; adding to their northern gains in the 2019 general election and 2021 Hartlepool by-election. However, Kim Leadbeater defied the odds and won the seat that had previously been held by her sister Jo Cox, who was murdered during a constituency event in 2016.
Since 2016, the seat had been held by Tracy Brabin, a former actress who vacated the seat after being successfully elected as the first Mayor of West Yorkshire.
Leadbeater faced an unprecedented level of abuse throughout the campaign, with videos circulating online showing her being harassed over her sexuality and stance on gay rights. Controversial former MP and regular by-election contester, George Galloway, spent much of the campaign attacking the Labour candidate, whilst being accused of stoking racial and ethnic tensions in the constituency.
There had been calls for police intervention following witnesses talking about intimidation, threats of violence and false leaflets being used in the constituency.
Conservative candidate Ryan Stephenson, who was the favourite to win the seat, ran a campaign largely from the shadows, making as little noise as possible whilst Galloway attacked Leadbeater and the Labour Party fought back. It seemed that the campaign was aimed at staying out of the spotlight and run comfortably to the finish line with polls in his favour.
Despite losing, Stephenson ran the result close, with Leadbeater winning by just 323 votes, and the Labour Party gaining a vote share that was 7.4% lower than in 2019. Turnout was down too, with just 47.6% of voters turning up to the polls, with the by-election being the fifth election in the constituency since 2015.
How did Leadbeater win?
Selected shortly after Tracey Brabin had vacated the seat, Leadbeater was highly popular with the membership – both for being the sister of former MP Jo Cox and for her own work within the Batley and Spen community.
Throughout the campaign, Labour’s traditional coalition in the constituency was pulled apart by George Galloway’s candidacy, and the sheer number of candidates running. Galloway’s divisive and often offensive campaign sought to gain the support of social conservatives, and his connection to the Muslim community, being thrice-married in Islamic ceremonies and, according to some, converting to Islam some twenty years ago, brought many traditionally Labour voting Muslims to his campaign.
His candidacy picked up around 6,000 votes, many of which were traditionally Labour voting Muslim constituents, meaning that the Labour Party had to find votes from elsewhere in order to claim victory.
It appears that they did so by taking liberal voters from both the Conservatives and the Lib Dems, with both parties seeing their vote share fall. Starmer’s brand of centre-left politics meshed closely with Kim Leadbeater and it appears that this played a role in them building a new coalition around which she could win.
However, there were other factors at play, notably the region being flooded with Labour activists, with hundreds of campaigners travelling from around the country. Popular Labour MPs also made the rounds, with David Lammy amongst those to take the trip up to West Yorkshire. The Conservatives also sent hundreds of activists to the constituency throughout the campaign, but the determination of the Labour Party seemed to dwarf those numbers, ensuring that there was greater facetime with voters.
Yet despite the Labour Party sending their army of activists, the campaign was decidedly local, with Leadbeater often dropping the Labour Party branding from her leaflets, instead using a purple colour scheme (perhaps a nod to centrism – mixing the red and blue) and focusing the campaign around her roots in the area.
This drew both praise and criticism from the left of the Labour Party, with some suggesting that Keir Starmer’s leadership was too toxic to be the face of the campaign, but others recognising the growing localisation of politics. The contrast to Ryan Stephenson, whose leaflets used full Conservative Party branding was clear.
However, with such a small margin of victory, it is also likely that events of recent weeks played their part. The Conservatives under Boris Johnson seemed unbeatable just months ago, after the Hartlepool by-election turned up a significant victory for the prime minister, but a shock defeat to the Liberal Democrats in the former Conservative stronghold of Chesham and Amersham put the brakes on. The ongoing scandal around former Health Secretary Matt Hancock may have also played a role, with a small margin of victory meaning that disenfranchisement with the government over the scandal could have left a few hundred voters sitting at home.
What will the result mean?
The election of Kim Leadbeater sees a highly popular politician entering the Labour benches, with Leadbeater dedicating much of her life in recent years to charity work; in 2021 she was awarded an MBE for “services to Social Cohesion, to the community in Batley, West Yorkshire and to Combatting Loneliness during Covid-19”. She had worked tirelessly to help those in Batley and Spen throughout the pandemic, and her election will give her a broader platform from which to do so, something that she promised throughout the campaign.
Her election could also be good news for Keir Starmer, with many on the left of the Labour Party pitching the by-election as a referendum on his leadership. The party were criticised heavily following defeat in Hartlepool and many suggested that defeat in Batley and Spen could trigger a leadership challenge. Starmer’s absence in Leadbeater’s leaflets was noted as a sign that he was on the ropes; victory could change that.
No doubt some will claim that Leadbeater won in spite of Starmer, there is no doubt that the victory and another centre-left ally on the green benches will bolster his leadership and allow him to push on, just as the momentum seems to be turning against Boris Johnson.
Johnson may be the biggest loser of the election. Although he still commands a 78-seat majority in Parliament, the last month has shown that the Conservatives’ march through the red wall can be halted, just as the Liberal Democrats are making their own headway into the ‘blue wall’, of which Chesham and Amersham was a part.
With scandal once again hitting his government – with this being the first to see a minister resign – and Dominic Cummings still throwing dirt from the side-lines, the success of the Liberal Democrats and Labour in the last two by-elections could make it difficult for the prime minister to decide on an election strategy for 2024.
Does he continue to go for the northern vote and risk a fightback under Starmer’s leadership, or does he revert back to the traditional electoral coalition that helped David Cameron to a majority in 2015? It is a tough question to answer; Labour’s surprise victory could have a significant impact on the coming years.