And while his recent upturn in fortunes owes more to the Prime Minister’s plummeting popularity rather than any dramatic public reassessment of Sir Keir’s personal abilities, a pivotal moment in his 2021 turnaround can be attributed to a very different politician to Mr Johnson and the decisions of a few hundred voters in the heart of West Yorkshire.
Kim Leadbeater’s narrow victory in the Batley and Spen by-election, with a victory margin of just 323 votes, was a fall on the previous 3,500 majority won by previous incumbent Tracy Brabin at the 2019 General Election, but her win in the Leave-backing constituency defied the political gravity which suggested a Conservative gain in the constituency was by far the likeliest outcome.
Back in May, North Yorkshire farmer Jill Mortimer caused a huge electoral shock in early May as she became the first Conservative MP to represent Hartlepool following a disastrous campaign by Labour in which their candidate Paul Williams was defeated by almost 7,000 votes.
While the Conservatives marked their victory by inflating a 30-ft model of Boris Johnson in the town, the bitter Labour post-mortem saw the sacking of deputy leader Angela Rayner from her roles as party chair and campaign co-ordinator followed by a swift backlash against Starmer’s decision from senior party figures like Greater Manchester mayor Andy Burnham.
Rayner herself said voters “on the doorstep didn’t know what Keir Starmer stood for” following poor results in Hartlepool and local elections.
There had been some better news for Labour in the West Yorkshire mayoral election as Tracy Brabin secured a comfortable victory – but that win appeared to be a double-edged sword as she stepped down as Batley and Spen MP to take on the new role, triggering a by-election that involved the prospect of another damaging defeat for Starmer.
Brabin’s 2019 majority was thanks in part to more than 6,000 local constituents voting for Leave-backing independent candidate Paul Halloran rather than the Conservatives. With Mr Halloran deciding against standing in the by-election and former MP George Galloway running with the specific intent of squeezing the Labour vote and force Starmer out as leader, both political gravity and electoral maths were against the party.
Enter Kim Leadbeater.
The sister of Jo Cox, who was the area’s MP until she was murdered outside her constituency surgery in 2016, Leadbeater, a lecturer in physical health at Bradford College and a personal trainer, had received an MBE for her work as an ambassador for the Jo Cox Foundation.
She said given the circumstances of her sister’s death, choosing to stand “was the most difficult decision I’ve had to make”. But Labour quickly recognised her potential as a candidate, waiving its usual rule that its candidates should have been a party member for at least a year before standing for election. Leadbeater noted she was “the only person out of the 16 candidates that lives in Batley and Spen” and put local issues like safer roads and green spaces at the heart of the campaign.
The bitter by-election saw Labour activists attacked and pelted with eggs at one stage, while Galloway accused the Labour-run Kirklees Council of a “blatantly partisan move” after his campaign posters were taken down over their font size.
In the days before the vote in July, such was the pressure on Starmer that sources close to the leader had to clarify he would refuse to quit if the party lost in Batley and Spen with MP Diane Abbott among those warning defeat would mean “curtains” for his leadership.
Instead, Leadbeater’s narrow win brought the Labour leader some vital breathing space. Former Speaker John Bercow subsequently said Leadbeater’s success had been, in part, down to her being able to persuade previous Tory voters to back Labour – a challenge the party now faces on a national scale.
Plenty of doubts still remains about Starmer’s ability to win voters over. It was notable that the recent North Shropshire by-election saw voters turning away from the Tories to the Liberal Democrats instead of Labour, despite the latter party finishing second there in 2019.
But Batley and Spen gave Starmer an important platform and recent changes to the Shadow Cabinet, such as the return of Yvette Cooper, are intended to show Labour as a party with the genuine ability to form a Government. Next year offers the opportunity for him to build on a foundation created in West Yorkshire.
Chris Burn is the political editor of The Yorkshire Post.
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