Battered and spent: the Batley and Spen by-election

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There you have it. After much controversy and media coverage, Labour and Kim Leadbeater have won the Batley and Spen by-election, albeit by a meagre 323 votes.

With a 47% turnout, Labour’s Kim Leadbeater attained 13,296 votes, compared to Conservative Ryan Stephenson’s 12,973, with George Galloway of the Workers’ Party of Britain earning just over 8,000.

Was this a shock victory for Labour? With the polls predicting a slight Tory victory, the expectation going into the by-election was certainly that of, at the very least, a Labour loss – but it isn’t that simple.

In normal times, the result would be entirely predictable – but these are not normal times

Indeed, whilst the Conservatives should be disappointed, they also should not worry too much. It is trite to say that incumbent governments tend to lose by-elections, never mind that this has been a Labour seat since the Blair landslide in 1997, which is partly why the Conservative victory in Hartlepool was a surprise – an incumbent government winning a seat held by Labour since 1974.

In normal times, the result in Batley would be entirely predictable and unsurprising – but these are not normal times.

Nonetheless, it is also the case that Labour’s margin of victory here was slight, with the constituency vote swinging by 2.8% from Labour to Conservative. This was a winnable seat for the Tories, which explains their confidence going into election day, but it is their loss as much as it is Labour’s hold.

From the Hancock scandal to the delay to Freedom Day to campaign complacency, the Tories should and certainly will be disappointed in this result. Though, external factors also played a role.

With the Green Party dropping out here just under a month ago, there was no chance of them splitting the Labour vote. Meanwhile, George Galloway’s 22% vote share may also have taken away enough of the would-be-Tory votes to ensure Leadbeater’s victory.

However, on the back of the recent Lib Dem victory in Chesham and Amersham, the Tories need to get their act together if they are to maintain their widespread voting coalition and avoid complacency.

It does give Starmer breathing room… he is out of trouble for now

Some are suggesting that this was a victory for Keir Starmer, but the events in Batley were localised and largely unrelated to the Labour leader, while the margin of victory and Labour’s dwindling majority here would suggest otherwise. Meanwhile, Ms Leadbeater also recently refused to comment on whether Keir Starmer was an asset to her campaign, and did not mention him in her victory speech.

Nonetheless, it does give Starmer breathing room following the local elections in May and the loss of Hartlepool, amidst plummeting favourability polls, and with rumours circulating about challenges to his leadership. He is out of trouble for now.

Any semblance of victory has also come at a cost. With the Conservatives largely quiet during the entire campaign, much has been made of the battle between Leadbeater and Galloway, the latter having stirred significant local tensions, and the former’s party producing a hugely divisive leaflet that has been criticised by many as being both ‘anti-India’, and exploitative of divisions between Indian and Pakistani voters. This is especially controversial in such an ethnically diverse constituency.

Events here have shown us some of the absolute worst of British politics, be it through the intimidation of candidates, homophobic, racist and tribal rhetoric, doctored leaflets, and the mistake of bringing divisive international affairs into the local arena in order to win votes.

The Batley and Spen by-election may go down as one of the most divisive

This is so without even having mentioned the Batley Grammar School incident, which had hardly been addressed by any candidate in the run-up to the election. With all of that, the Batley and Spen by-election may go down as one of the most divisive and bitter yet in modern British politics.

Regardless, now-MP Kim Leadbeater fought hard for this victory. No matter what side of politics you are on, clearly after all she has been through, especially the murder of her sister, former MP Jo Cox, she deserves all of our congratulations for this result.

Image: Mike Kirby via Wikimedia Commons

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