An opposition party holding a seat in a byelection would not usually be seen as a triumph, but Labour’s victory in Batley and Spen was such an upset that it could mark a turning point in Keir Starmer’s leadership. Ahead of polling day, his critics within the party were briefing that a defeat could trigger a leadership contest as a number of trade unions were reported to be backing a challenge by his deputy, Angela Rayner.
Starmer tried to demote Rayner in a reshuffle after May’s byelection defeat in Hartlepool, but he botched the manoeuvre so badly that she emerged stronger afterwards. Since then her allies have become more outspoken in their criticism of Starmer’s leadership and more candid about Rayner’s ambition to replace him.
Kim Leadbeater’s win in Batley and Spen leaves the leader secure from any challenge at least for a few months. And the nature of her victory points towards a path out of Labour’s current malaise, which has left the party trailing the Conservatives in the polls for months, often by double digits.
Leadbeater, whose sister Jo Cox held the seat until she was murdered by a far-right activist during the 2016 EU referendum campaign, faced multiple challenges. The Conservatives have been on a roll in Brexit-backing constituencies such as Batley and Spen since the 2019 election and it sought to broaden its appeal by telling voters that a Tory MP would have a better chance of securing government funds for the area.
A pro-Brexit candidate who won more than 6,000 votes in 2019 did not stand this time and most of his support was expected to go to the Conservatives. And former Labour MP George Galloway sought to split the anti-Conservative vote with an appeal to Muslim voters based on support for Palestinian and Kashmiri rights and opposition to LGBT rights.
Leadbeater’s qualities as a popular, local candidate and Labour’s superior get-out-the-vote operation helped her to victory. But Starmer’s appointment of Shabana Mahmood as national campaign co-ordinator and Conor McGinn as her deputy has also brought a sharper focus to the party’s operations.
If Batley and Spen won Starmer a reprieve, it carries a warning for Boris Johnson, two weeks after the Conservatives’ unexpected defeat in another byelection in Chesham and Amersham. In both elections, the Conservative ground game was found wanting and both contests showed that the loosening of party loyalties can work both ways, particularly as the government’s vaccine bounce is fading.