Batley and Spen – Labour score late win in last minute but this is no revival

Dave Kellaway reports on Labour's shock by-election victory in Batley and Spen.

PARTY2019 (%)2021 (%)
Labour Party (Kim Leadbeater)42.735.3
Conservative Party (Ryan Stephenson)3634.4
Workers Party (George Galloway)21.9
Liberal Democrats (Thomas Gordon)4.73.3
Heavy Wollen (Ind)12.2
Result for Batley and Spen (turn out 2019: 66.5%  2021: 47.61 (cf. Hartlepool : 42.55)
Labour won by 323 votes

Labour head office officially claimed this as a ‘fantastic victory in a marginal seat’. As polls gave the Tories a 6 point lead and the bookies had Labour losing you can see why the official might have got carried away. It may not be an historic Labour stronghold but it has been Labour since 1997 and in 2017 under Corbyn’s leadership they won an outright majority with 55.5%. That was at a time when Corbyn had been under continual attack by the Parliamentary Labour Party (PLP) and most of the apparatus. By contrast, Starmer has the full support of the party machine, the PLP and an uncritical, if not always enthusiastic, mass media. Labour losing another 7 points after the bad 2019 electoral defeat means it is making little or no progress in winning the support it needs to overturn Johnson’s majority in an election in two or three years’ time.

Tory strategists thought it would be sufficient to keep their candidate out of the way and get Johnson to sound off about the new resources coming to the area. They were also banking on George Galloway taking enough of Labour’s votes to allow their man in. Although more analysis is necessary, it appears that Galloway picked up at least some former Tory and Heavy Woollen party voters. Both of those parties won most of the Brexit vote in 2019. John Curtis, the election specialist, made this point on the BBC Today programme on the 2nd July. Galloway is a well-known Brexiteer, who shared platforms with racists like Farage – someone those voters identify with. At the same time he had hammered away on what you can euphemistically call socially conservative themes. It was reported that he was against schools teaching about anal sex or how to masturbate.

Galloway, on his RT TV programme, ranted against the left journalist Owen Jones, who happens to be gay. The clip can be viewed in this link to Owen’s counter rant. Owen is accused of being the epitome of what he says is losing Labour its working class vote, including by the way Owen talks and dresses. It is hard not to discern a dog whistle appeal to homophobia. Again there were a number of reports that his supporters were pushing hard on the fact that Kim Leadbetter is a lesbian. George himself made no offensive statements against her, but how hard did he work to stop this sort of thing going on among his base?

Moreover, Galloway has made it clear that he was concerned about all the ‘trans mania’ going on. On social media we saw that it was not just Pakistani Muslims agreeing with him. Ironically his very success meant that he nibbled at the Tory/Brexit vote and so failed to make Labour lose and ‘knock out Starmer’ as his campaign posters promised. Certainly the ‘aggressive’ campaigning by some Galloway supporters backfired to some degree, since there is some evidence that Labour voters rallied around somebody who was seen as a decent local candidate being unfairly attacked.

Nevertheless the Galloway vote also shows the extent to which Labour is failing to mobilise what has been its traditional support. The majority of his 8000 voters were from the Muslim community, angry at being ‘taken for granted’ by Labour. Having a Labour MP and local council did not make a difference to the deprivation many of this community suffer. At the same time Labour failed to understand that international questions like Kashmir or Palestine matter to working class voters. There was almost a patronising attitude that a certain amount of recognition of the community in institutional structures and council spending is enough to keep it happy.

Official links with community leaders overlooked the radicalisation particularly of younger educated Pakistanis or Kashmiris on Palestine or Modi’s Hindu nationalist Indian government. Voters noticed the shift on Kashmir and the failure of Starmer or his broader leadership to speak up for the Palestinian people and condemn Israeli government repression. Indeed, this by-election puts into relief many simplistic notions Labour HQ is spreading about the ‘red wall’ voters. Seats in the North or Midlands are not just white working class. Galloway is a seasoned electoral campaigner, winning seats on six occasions, and he set up a well organised campaign with material support from local business people.

Labour has accused Galloway of splitting the vote and using unsavoury tactics to attack the local Labour candidate. It is a convenient way for Labour to avoid confronting its failure to mobilise its own support. One party official even went so far as to accuse the whole Muslim community of being antisemitic – they supposedly were not voting for Labour because Starmer was leading the righteous fight against antisemitism. The official statement was so utterly contemptible that the local campaign hastily distanced itself from it, but it does reveal how the central leadership view these issues.

As for splitting the vote, which even some of the left in Labour denounce when there are left candidates standing, we cannot accept that argument. It is tribal, sectarian and ignores the anti-democratic nature of the first past the post system. We can criticise Galloway’s campaign for how it pandered to nationalism and social conservatism, but he has a perfect right to compete electorally. If Labour had kept the radical surge that gave it 55.5% in 2017, it would have no problem with fringe parties picking up a few thousand votes. Labour should be working to bring in proportional representation. Even Batley shows this as it won with a 35% minority of the vote. It could just as well have won with anti-tory second preferences.

The slight decline of the Tory vote also shows to a degree how the Tories popularity might be less strong than we think. It lost Amersham on a massive swing just a few weeks ago, failing to pick up much of the 12% of the pro-Brexit right of centre Heavy Woollen party support, which did not stand this time. It is possible that the high visibility of the Matt Hancock affair had a negative effect. Given how close it was you cannot discount that factor.

Starmer’s problem is that he has failed to articulate a coherent narrative and strategy to form a majority on an alternative programme to the radical Corbyn project. This is why it is not just the left but the centre and right of the party who are becoming restive. The fact that Starmer has more or less totally changed his closest advisors shows a certain political ineptitude. At the same time his demeanour and communication skills, which are supposedly so good in the forensic cut and thrust of parliamentary debate, are just not working with the public in general.

Like a last minute penalty shootout win in football this narrow win has kept Starmer in the game but the prospects for continued survival are in doubt. The threat does not really come from the Corbyn left. It was reported that the Socialist Campaign Group did a bit of a count up and found they were nowhere near the 40 signatures needed to trigger a leadership contest. Moreover, it is obvious that this group is internally divided, with some likely to support a Rayner challenge and eventually even going for Andy Burnham.

Rayner’s supporters, it is reported in the Times, did start to move after Hartlepool, but she has now hauled them back saying any leadership bid is ‘news to me’. Burnham is also not playing the short game, although he managed to get a front page New Statesman story to come out just in the week of this by-election. In the interview he reinvents himself as soft left but with traditional views on things such as law and order. Shades of a reworked Blue Labour approach. The interview is the usual mix of loyalty to Starmer with a thinly veiled leadership bid; insofar as the call came, he would certainly respond. A recent poll of Labour members says about 7 out of 10 would support him.

For the left this by-election confirms that Starmer is not carrying out the triple promise that helped him win the leadership. He is not uniting the party as there is no sign of the whip being restored to Corbyn or other suspensions getting lifted. He is not retaining the radical core of the 2019 manifesto as he ditches or waters down each of the famous 10 pledges. Finally, he is not proving to be electable. One advantage he does have is the greater reluctance Labour politicians seem to have, compared to the Tories, of dethroning their leaders. Another is that perhaps the strongest rivel contender, Burnham, has to become an MP again before he can go for it. This gives Starmer some time.

At the moment Starmer is neither completely satisfying the Blairite right of the party nor the centre as he still seems hesitant to commit either way. Some, on the left, like Paul Mason, have argued for him to make an opening back to the left, bringing in pro-Corbyn people to the shadow cabinet and putting a 5 point radical programme together. It might look like a coherent play, but Mason underestimates what was at stake for the labour bureaucracy with the Corbyn project. Such radicalisation cannot be allowed out of the box again.

Any continued resistance inside Labour has to be combined with mobilisations in communities and workplaces to defend democratic rights (Kill the bill), working conditions (against Hire and Rehire) and in solidarity with people internationally (Palestine). Any perspective that relies on a simple rerun of the Corbyn process is increasingly unrealistic as the leadership is looking to change the rules to make it harder to have a successful left candidate.

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Dave Kellaway is on the Editorial Board of Anti*Capitalist Resistance, a member of Socialist Resistance, and Hackney and Stoke Newington Labour Party, a contributor to International Viewpoint and Europe Solidaire Sans Frontieres.

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