Labour’s slim victory in the important Batley and Spen by-election yesterday will remove the immediate pressure on the party’s embattled leader Sir Keir Starmer. The winning candidate polled only 323 more votes than the Conservatives in a seat that has been Labour since Tony Blair’s landslide in 1997.
The vacancy, caused by the incumbent Tracy Brabin’s election as a regional mayor, saw every political party in England mobilise to get a strategic “mid-term” win. Also in the mix was George Galloway, a former Labour MP and now a perennial thorn in the side for his old party, who came third with over 8000 votes. By standing, Galloway very nearly split the Labour vote enough to allow the Conservatives to victory.
Mid-term by-elections are all about the flow of travel among the electorate and are watched like hawks in Westminster to sense the mood of the country. After a few years in office, governments often begin to look stale and voters begin to look somewhere else. Poor results in a mid-term election can dramatically weaken party leaders whilst strengthening the hands of those who’d like to replace them.
Feeling the most heat last night was Starmer, who has been consistently languishing ten points behind Boris Johnson’s Conservatives in national polls. The Conservatives have seemed immune to political challenges for some time now, despite anger in much of the country at their handling of the COVID-19 pandemic and the ever-changing roadmap back to normal life.
In fact, the Conservatives had sent in their big guns to campaign here, sensing that Galloway’s presence could be enough to secure a shock win. In the end, it wasn’t to be and they won’t be the only ones disappointed. The Liberal Democrats long-awaited breakthrough into national politics looked to be on the cards when they unexpectedly won the Chesham and Amersham from the Conservatives by-election in June. However, the party fizzled away into nothing last night, with their candidate getting a mere 3.3% of the vote. This may mean that the Lib Dems are still only as good as the local issue they can find to campaign about and that there is no large appetite in the country for their return.
When victory is just a few hundred votes, it’s the “get the vote out” team on the day that will have won it, so Starmer will be relieved that the machinery of his party is beginning to improve. It will also be a huge morale boost to his workers, something not to underestimate. However, it won’t stop the constant criticisms of his leadership from his own party, the media and voters.
Starmer has yet to connect with the people in the same way that Johnson has, despite the fact that almost nobody in the UK has any reason to identify with Johnson’s privileged background. Part of the issue is that during the pandemic, the country has focused almost entirely on the government’s every word. No post-war government has ever had such an obvious and direct impact on its peoples’ day to day lives. The huffing and puffing of an official opposition shouting into the void of Zoom have therefore been an irrelevance to many people, who just want to know what will be done rather than what might have been done, had they elected Labour.
And whilst Starmer is amiable, the perception remains that he’s just another human rights lawyer from London, a do-gooder champagne socialist who is a million miles away from the real-life issues you’d find on a council estate in the north. He’s also exposed for not having any clear policies, the “key messages” of politics. At the moment, we know the Tories want to end the lockdown and Build Back Better. It’s not much, but it’s something. Ask people what Starmer wants to do, and it’s anyone’s guess. What would he do differently? How would he rebuild the economy? What would he do for the northern belt of former Labour seats who now vote Tory? Few know, and even fewer care.
So where does the Batley and Spen result leave things once the dust has settled? We know Galloway can inflict huge damage, but he can’t be doing this at every by-election. We know that support for the Conservatives is still strong, but weak for the Lib Dems. And we know that Labour can get its act together and rediscover the art of winning when it has to. But with the country heading out of lockdown and the Conservatives expecting praise for it, this victory might have only extended Starmer’s time as Labour leader, rather than secured it.