By Oliver Gibson –
The recent by-election in Batley and Spen was something of a surprise – though it had been a Labour seat since 1997, polling seemed to indicate that the Conservatives would win.
Furthermore, George Galloway’s presence in the campaign would, in many people’s minds, siphon votes from Labour and make it possible for the Conservative candidate, Ryan Stephenson, to take the seat instead of Kim Leadbeater of the Labour Party.
It was surprising, therefore, to watch Kim Leadbeater being announced as the victor, having taken just 13,296 votes. As it turned out, Galloway had seemingly taken votes from Labour and the Conservatives – with Labour down by 7.4% and the Conservatives down by 1.6%.
It was a close result, but Labour won, nevertheless. After the count, I interviewed Bob Buxton, leader of the Yorkshire Party, and Corey Robinson (that Party’s candidate in the by-election). I asked them the following question – ‘Is Keir Starmer’s position finally secure?’. Their comments will be reflected upon later in the article.
Keir Starmer’s first year in office
Starmer was elected as the leader of the Labour Party in April 2020, five months after the disastrous 2019 general election. While Starmer was an early favourite in polling of Labour Party members, he had to try ‘desperately hard to get rid of his image as an elitist, privileged lawyer,’ according to The Guardian.
In the end, Starmer saw off both Rebecca Long-Bailey and Lisa Nandy and secured 56.2% of the members’ votes. Following his victory in that election, Starmer recognised the size of the ‘mountain’ the Party had to climb and pledged to put Labour in a better position to fight the next general election.
Despite his victory in that leadership election, rumours have been spreading in the Party about a potential challenge to his position for some time. Such a challenge would not be unprecedented – in 2016, one year after his election to the post of Labour leader, Jeremy Corbyn faced a challenge from Owen Smith.
While Corbyn successfully saw off Smith’s attempt, the very fact that a majority of Labour MPs voted against him in the no-confidence vote weakened his position within Parliament – giving further political capital to his opponents.
It would be wrong to paint the picture that Starmer is days away from being ousted by a disgruntled MP, especially given that Labour managed to hold onto Batley and Spen earlier this month. But is he still in danger of a challenge to his position before the next election?
What Batley and Spen can tell us
On the face of it, a by-election win would strengthen a party leader’s position. However, Kim Leadbeater only narrowly managed to hold onto Batley and Spen, taking over from Tracy Brabin (who was elected as the first Mayor of West Yorkshire in May). Leadbeater secured a majority of 323 votes, which amounts to 0.86% of the total number of ballot papers cast. The votes for the top five candidates are as follows:
- Kim Leadbeater (Labour) – 13,296 – 35.27%
- Ryan Stephenson (Conservatives) – 12,973 – 34.42%
- George Galloway (Workers Party) – 8,264 – 21.92%
- Tom Gordon (Liberal Democrats) – 1,254 – 3.33%
- Corey Robinson (Yorkshire Party) – 816 – 2.16%
At first glance at the results, one could easily conclude that the by-election was a divisive campaign fought by Labour and the Conservatives over national political affairs. Bob Buxton, the Yorkshire Party’s leader, had different opinions, however.
In an exclusive interview with KLTV, Buxton, along with his candidate Corey Robinson, said that his team found the campaign to be ‘refreshingly focused on localism,’ and that in his view, voters were more concerned with selecting a representative who would argue on their behalf than with national political debates.
Buxton went on to say that Leadbeater, as the ‘only local candidate’ of the top three, found it far easier to connect with the people of Batley and Spen. Indeed, in her own words, Leadbeater has been keen to point out that she was ‘born and bred’ in the constituency. Ryan Stephenson, on the other hand, is a councillor in Leeds and George Galloway, of course, is from Scotland.
Buxton said he was ‘not sure’ whether Starmer was as integral to the campaign in Batley and Spen as ‘journalists have said’ and stated his view that constituents were more concerned with ‘potholes, the environment and local issues.’
Crucially, Buxton said that his campaign found voters to be ‘sick of the neglect’ that both of the major parties usually offered and also sick of the ‘battleground’ that the constituency has become. He did offer a message of hope, however, asserting that while it was sad that Batley and Spen was now associated with a ‘circus of by-elections,’ Jayda Fransen, a controversial candidate on the far-right, had ‘lost to spoilt ballots.’ His team were also pleased that they had run a positive and non-divisive campaign – which was a breath of fresh air given the actions of the Workers Party and Labour Party in pitting communities against each other through their messaging.
Knowingly or otherwise, the Workers Party was vocal on the issue of Palestine to such an extent that one was reminded of Galloway’s past comments against Israel and against Israeli citizens. As the MP for Batley and Spen is in no legal position to alter the situation in Israel, it is fair to assume that those issues were raised to add fuel to the fire of the ‘culture war’ over that subject – an act which pits voters and entire communities against each other.
The Labour campaign, again unknowingly or otherwise, also used divisive messaging. A leaflet, which was produced by Labour’s campaign, featured a photograph of Boris Johnson stood with Narendra Modi, the Prime Minister of India, and suggested that voters of Pakistani descent should not vote for the Conservatives as a result of the apparent friendly atmosphere in that meeting. This leaflet also exploited a conflict, this time over Kashmir, a territory which is disputed between India, Pakistan and China and placed the voters of Batley and Spen against each other.
Those points aside, Buxton seemed unconvinced that the by-election changed much for Starmer – and given that a mere 323 votes won it this seems to be reflected by the facts. All points considered, Buxton explained that, in his view, ‘it wouldn’t have made a difference if it was 300 votes the other way.’ It is important to note, however, that Labour’s victory allowed Starmer to see off a mounting challenge from either Dawn Butler or Angela Rayner.
With that by-election now confined to the annals of very recent history, what lies ahead of Starmer in the years to come?
— Kirklees Local TV (@KirkleesLocalTV) July 1, 2021
Predictions for the future
As with any politician recently having come to the post of Leader of the Opposition, it is now for Starmer to establish himself as a political force in his own right, unite his party (as divided parties rarely command the confidence of voters), offer a coherent message and present an alternative to the governing party.
So far, Starmer has indirectly taken on Unite, a large union that Len McCluskey runs. The two clashed last year over Starmer’s strong stance against anti-Semitism, with McCluskey criticising Starmer’s decision to suspend Jeremy Corbyn’s membership of the Labour Party in October last year as an ‘act of grave injustice.’ McCluskey, a key ally of Corbyn, had also clashed with Starmer after the latter’s decision to pay ‘substantial damages’ to seven former Labour Party staffers who left the Party due to issues in relation to anti-Semitism. Unite, which will soon be led by a new General Secretary following its upcoming internal election, is the largest affiliate of the Labour Party and is also a significant donor – meaning that future clashes between the Labour leadership and the union could be seriously problematic for Starmer. However, it is also important for the Labour leader to exercise a sufficient level of control over Labour’s message, and if Unite openly conflicts against that message without a challenge from Starmer, then his position would be weakened.
The Socialist Campaign Group, a hard-left faction within the Parliamentary Labour Party, failed to secure a sufficient level of support from Labour’s backbenches to call a vote of no confidence in Starmer’s leadership on the night of the Batley and Spen by-election. However, their failure in that regard does not mean that Starmer is safe from challenges in the future.
While his strong stance against anti-Semitism has won him the respect of various Jewish groups, ex-MPs and ex-Labour staffers, it has alienated key Corbyn allies – any of which could potentially launch a challenge to his leadership.
Boris Johnson is currently aiming to repeal the Fixed-Term Parliaments Act (2011). To this end, the ‘Dissolution and Calling of Parliament Bill’ was announced in the Queen’s Speech in May of this year. If approved by Parliament, that Bill would return the royal prerogative power to dissolve Parliament and call an election to the government of the day. This arrangement was the case before the Coalition Government brought forward the FTPA (2011). Parliaments would automatically be dissolved five years after they were called, as has been the tradition for some time in British politics.
Rumours have recently been spreading that the Government is looking into the possibility of calling an election in 2023, one year earlier than is strictly necessary. If the FTPA (2011) was to be repealed in advance, it would be easier for the Government to pursue an early election, though their 80 seat majority presents few obstacles as things stand.
The Conservatives are currently ahead in the polls and have been for some time – this presents an obvious problem for Starmer. It would be a logical move for the Conservatives to call an election while they are ahead in the polls and to capitalise on the conditions of the day, but this would, of course, be done at Starmer’s peril. Thus, the ‘mountain’ that Starmer and his Party have to climb could soon get steeper – and he may only have just under two years to climb it if an early election is called.
However, if a week truly is a long time in politics, as Huddersfield’s own Harold Wilson famously said, then two years could perhaps be enough for Starmer to assert his position within Labour and put his Party in a firmer position going into the next election than
Image Credit: Chris McAndrew