Batley and Spen by-election highlights why Keir Starmer’s Labour are losing their friends in the North: Andrew Vine

IF Sir Keir Starmer was to talk to some friends of mine who live in Heckmondwike, part of the Batley and Spen constituency, he’d be even more worried about the outcome of Thursday’s by-election than he is already.

Labour leader Sir Keir Starmer is coming under intense pressure ahead of this week's Batley and Spen by-election. He is pictured during a recent visit to Batley to support his party's candidate Kim Leadbeater.
Labour leader Sir Keir Starmer is coming under intense pressure ahead of this week's Batley and Spen by-election. He is pictured during a recent visit to Batley to support his party's candidate Kim Leadbeater.

They are a couple in their late 50s who were lifelong Labour voters until Jeremy Corbyn became leader, when they turned away, unable to stomach the idea of him becoming Prime Minister and voted Conservative instead.

And that’s the way they’re leaning in the by-election, even though the messy resignation of Matt Hancock as Health Secretary over his hypocrisy in pursuing an alleged affair with a colleague while lecturing the country on keeping a distance from others has only reinforced their concerns about Tory trustworthiness.

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It isn’t that they dislike Labour. It’s more a matter of the party seeming out of step with people like them who should be its natural supporters.

Labour leader Sir Keir Starmer is coming under intense pressure ahead of this week's Batley and Spen by-election. He is pictured during a recent visit to Batley to support his party's candidate Kim Leadbeater.

My friends sum up the problem that Labour has in the North. Its message to voters is unclear and it does not appear to share their concerns about issues including law and order and immigration.

Its voice is of London boroughs where there is plenty of money and good public services, and not that of a former mill town in Yorkshire where everybody knows a family struggling to manage.

The irony that a wealthy ex-Etonian Prime Minister with no affinity with northern industrial communities appears to speak more convincingly to voters in Heckmondwike than Labour is not lost on this couple. But they want what is best for them and their town, and he’s more likely to deliver than Sir Keir.

It is impossible to predict how many others will think the same way when they vote on Thursday.

Labour leader Sir Keir Starmer is coming under intense pressure ahead of this week's Batley and Spen by-election. He is pictured during a recent visit to Batley to support his party's candidate Kim Leadbeater.

The Prime Minister’s attempts to keep Mr Hancock in his job before he was replaced by Sajid Javid have dented the party’s credibility. Once again, Mr Johnson’s integrity has been called into question, because he plainly thought the scandal could be brazened out.

That may help Labour. On paper, several factors are in place which should point to it holding the seat, among them a strong candidate with impeccable local credentials, a proud industrial heritage and a substantial proportion of Asian voters who traditionally support the party.

Yet the opinion polls tell a different story and if Labour loses, following defeat in Hartlepool and a dismal showing in the Chesham and Amersham by-election, a ton of trouble will be dumped on Sir Keir by his own party.

Somehow, despite him being an intelligent and decent politician who is making effective attacks on the Government, he is just not getting through to the northern seats that he needs to hang on to – or reclaim – if Labour is to govern again.

His criticism of Mr Johnson over delays in introducing lockdowns have been spot-on, as was his forensic questioning about why this country has such a disgracefully low rate of convictions for rape. And Sir Keir is right to condemn the proposed spending of £200m on a new royal yacht as a monumental waste of money at a time when the country is up to its neck in debt, suggesting instead that the money is spent on tackling anti-social behaviour, which plagues so many communities.

Yet, although sensible people of moderate political opinion would agree with Sir Keir on matters like these, he’s way behind Mr Johnson in every opinion poll on who would make the best premier, and his party does not currently feel like a credible government-in-waiting.

To my friends in Heckmondwike – 
and there are millions just like them all over the country – Labour just doesn’t share their values any more. They are socially conservative in their outlook, believing in their country and the monarchy, the armed forces and a sort of traditional Britishness that too many in Labour have pooh-poohed over the course of years.

They don’t like being told what to think or which opinions to hold, and a certain tendency for Labour to preach about what is, and is not, acceptable to say irks them. How Sir Keir bridges the gap between appealing to voters like them and keeping elements of his 
party who regard their traditional Britishness as suspect on side is a dilemma he does not yet show any sign of solving.

A measure of the challenge he faces was illustrated a few week ago when it was leaked from his office that Sir Keir would like to present Labour as more patriotic. Absurdly, this was derided by some in Labour, as if affection for the country we all share is somehow shameful.

That sort of thing cuts through to voters like my friends. Labour isn’t speaking their language, or that of the people in other red wall seats. Whether Batley and Spen is held or lost, Sir Keir will still face pressing questions to which he currently offers no answers.

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