The other week we looked at the by-election in Chesham & Amersham, in southern England, where Boris Johnson’s Conservatives lost badly to the Liberal Democrats. Last week there was more bad news for Johnson with another by-election loss, but one with a rather different dynamic.
This time it was Batley & Spen, a mostly working-class seat in West Yorkshire. It has been held by Labour since the 1997 landslide, but it’s just the sort of seat that the Conservatives are now targeting – as was Hartlepool, which they won by a big margin at a by-election in May. Both were previously strong territory for the far-right UKIP; at the 2015 election it won 18.0% of the vote in Batley & Spen and 28.0% in Hartlepool.
But the Labour MP who won Batley & Spen in 2015, Jo Cox, was assassinated the following year at the height of the Brexit campaign. She was replaced by Tracy Brabin, who held the seat comfortably at the 2017 election and somewhat less comfortably in 2019. On that occasion she had 42.7% of the vote against 36.0% for the Conservatives and 12.2% for a pro-Brexit candidate from the Heavy Woollen District Independents.
Earlier this year, Brabin switched to the newly created post of Mayor of West Yorkshire, leaving the seat vacant. Labour preselected Cox’s sister, Kim Leadbeater, but given the party’s lacklustre position in the polls there was considerable doubt as to whether she would be able win it: even if Labour’s vote held, the flow of Brexit votes to the Conservatives might have been enough to deliver them the seat.
Complicating matters, however, was the entry of Labour renegade George Galloway, standing as a “Workers Party” candidate. Galloway is usually tagged as far left, but sounds most of the same themes as the far right: he is pro-Brexit, flirts with homophobia and antisemitism, and while pitching himself to the Muslim community (which is a major force in the seat) is notoriously sympathetic to the Muslim world’s tyrants, especially Syria’s Bashar al-Assad.
The Conservatives viewed Galloway as a positive, hoping that he would take votes from Labour. Some in Labour’s Corbynite wing would also have supported him, hoping that a Labour defeat would spell the end for its moderate leader, Keir Starmer. But if the Tory strategy of moving into pro-Brexit working-class areas was to be taken seriously, then Galloway was also a threat to them, potentially attracting votes that might otherwise have switched to the Conservatives and therefore, in a first-past-the-post election, indirectly helping Labour.
And so it turned out. Leadbeater just squeaked in, winning 35.3% of the vote, 323 votes ahead of the Conservatives’ 34.4%. Galloway had 21.9%, and there was daylight between him and the fourth-placed Liberal Democrats on 3.3% – the latter had presumably run dead, as Labour did in Chesham & Amersham. Another twelve candidates soaked up the remaining 5.1%, with the Monster Raving Loony Party for once finishing in the top half of the field.
Although it’s a narrow win, the result is a boost for Starmer’s leadership just when he needed it. It removes the immediate threat to his position and turns the focus more back on Johnson, who still has unresolved Brexit issues to deal with as well as the more routine run of scandals [link added] in the Conservative Party. Nonetheless, there is still some way to go before Labour can feel it is in a competitive position.
The four biggest parties in the British parliament, Conservatives, Lib Dems, Labour and Scottish Nationalists, are now one-all in by-elections, but with more than three years to the next scheduled election that means more for internal party politics than as any serious indication of their electoral prospects. And the next likely electoral test, for the Assembly of Northern Ireland (due by next May but very possible earlier), won’t directly implicate them either, but it could easily throw up more problems for the government.