Batley and Spen Showed How Labour Has Gone Backwards Under Starmer

Labour's right-wing has treated the razor-thin victory a week ago in Batley and Spen as vindication – but it exposed a stark reality: the party's problems are even greater now than they were in December 2019.

It was a hollow victory, but last week 323 votes saw Labour cling on to Batley and Spen. The party saw its vote share decrease by seven percentage points, and the three percent swing towards the Conservatives is the biggest to a governing party in nearly 40 years. Labour’s majority was reduced by 90 percent. In all likelihood, the anonymity and North Yorkshire postcode of the Conservative candidate, a Leeds councillor, made the difference in the end. This was not a Labour gain, but a fingernail hold.

These difficult facts have been ignored by many on the Labour right, and in their place a bizarre triumphalism has taken hold. The result was framed as a victory for Starmer and his leadership; meanwhile, Peter Mandelson and his allies used it as an opportunity to denounce an invented Labour left that had been secretly campaigning for Galloway. Some argued that Labour ‘overcame the odds’ – which is true, but begs the question: after over a year of Keir Starmer as Labour leader in which the government has been repeatedly revealed to be corrupt and incompetent, leading to over 125,000 people dying from Covid-19, why were those odds not favouring Labour in a seat it already held?

If no lessons are to be taken by the dominant right of the party from Batley and Spen and instead a fantasy is contrived about the nature of the result, the medium to long-term future of Labour is at real risk. There is a simple fact that we must confront: if the drop in vote share was repeated at a national level, Labour would see a result far worse than it did in 2019.

Labour’s candidate, Kim Leadbeater, was perhaps the only person who could have held onto the seat for Labour. She brought together activists from across the country in a way that the party’s Hartlepool candidate had not, inspiring them to travel from far and wide to canvas on her behalf. A lot must be said too about her local roots and record of action in the area, which offered activists the chance to talk to voters about the qualities of the candidate, her community work, and what she would like to see for the constituency. This was a blessing for activists having difficult doorstep conversations, and made up for the near-total absence of national policy and ideas.

Alongside the candidate, credit must go to hundreds of volunteers who showed up to help and to the Yorkshire and Humber Regional Labour Party for its efforts in organising the campaign. Without the activists on the ground or the effective administration of the campaign, the 323 vote difference could quite easily have gone the other way. Without a doubt, Labour’s get out the vote (GOTV) operation saved the day for the party, as Leeds North West MP Alex Sobel put it: ‘Everyone had stories of finding two people or a house post-7pm who hadn’t delivered a postal vote or had no polling card or needed a bit of a push. We had around 400 out so it was our GOTV.’

George Galloway’s impact on the election and the maths of the final vote should not be dismissed. He managed to increase the third place vote in the constituency by nearly 2000 on the 2019 result for local independent, Paul Halloran, and his Heavy Woolen Independents group. Without a doubt, a chunk of these votes will have been made as a protest by electors across the constituency. However, it has been widely reported that the majority came from the south Asian Muslim community in the area, which would reliably have given their votes to Labour in previous years.

Galloway’s popularity should have given the party a moment for reflection to consider why these voters, who had stuck with Labour throughout the past decade and beyond, felt that they would swap their votes to support a man with no connection to the area. But instead came a barrage of Islamophobic briefing from anonymous sources within the party, decrying Muslims in the area as homophobic, misogynistic, and various other smears.

If Labour is to have any chance of even maintaining its vote at the next general election, there needs to be a serious effort to reconnect with and to address concerns of Muslim voters – particularly over international justice issues such as Palestine and Kashmir. But if there was any intention to pursue that course, it hasn’t been possible to see it in the days since the election.

As Tribune argued, this victory had little to do with Keir Starmer; nor, for that matter, did it have anything to do with his immediate predecessor, as much as some may have wanted it to. It was hard to find anyone on the doorstep to mention either, positively or negatively. The leader of the opposition was conspicuous by his absence during the campaign. No photographs of Starmer drinking pints or eating fish and chips. No literature emblazoned with his face alongside the words ‘a new leadership’. Similarly, the words ‘the Labour Party’ were missing from most of the campaign material.

It is clear that there is a total failure from the top to reconnect with voters in former Labour areas. With the prospect of a possible by-election taking place in neighbouring Wakefield in the near future, there are a number of lessons for the party to take on board. The tone-deaf triumphalism and petty post-election score-settling of the PLP, combined with hostile briefing against party figures such as Angela Rayner—who was campaigning in the seat all of polling day—needs to stop. So too do attacks on the party base and loyal voting constituencies, whether young people or Muslims.

Hollow patriotism, talk of abstract ‘values’, and flag-waving do not work. If Labour truly believes in Britain, the best way to show it is through policies and a programme that will benefit the entire country, ending the profiteering by multinational corporations from our energy, transport, housing, and health and care services, and replacing it all with an economy which prioritises need above private gain. Labour should seek to become the party of working people again by setting out a bold industrial strategy and programme for nationalisation.

If Labour is serious about being a party of government again, it needs to take seriously the job of building a coalition through persuasion. Neither bland vacuities nor attacks on the Left have worked. Labour must build a message around the shared interests and concerns of voters, the cost of living, and ambitions for the future. It must begin the difficult process of bringing together all of those who would benefit from a Labour government. Only then can the party hope to succeed.