Why Kim Leadbeater’s win in Batley and Spen is a victory for localism – Mark Stuart

SOMETIMES in politics any win, however narrow, is good enough. And so it proved for Labour’s tiny winning margin in the Batley and Spen by-election after a brief recount.

This was Kim Leadbeater celebrating her win in the Batley & Spen by-election.
This was Kim Leadbeater celebrating her win in the Batley & Spen by-election.

But what does it tell us about the state of politics, both locally and nationally? The main conclusion to be drawn from this by-election result is that local issues and local candidates still matter.

Labour had the good sense to pick a strong local candidate. Kim Leadbeater is the sister of Jo Cox, the former MP who was brutally murdered in 2016.

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This was Kim Leadbeater as the Batley and Spen by-election result was announced.

Just as importantly, Leadbeater was born and brought up in the constituency. An increasing amount of recent research shows that voters value local candidates above everything else.

They want someone who is like them, who has experienced what 
they have experienced and who will stand up for their interests at Westminster.

Labour’s small win also illustrates that Batley and Spen is not the same as Hartlepool, scene of the Conservatives’ most recent by-election win. Although the West Yorkshire constituency was held by the Tories from 1983 until 1997, it has become culturally much more diverse since then, comprising a large Muslim community.

In other words, the demographics of a constituency – how diverse an area is – will increasingly determine who wins the seat. So, while the Conservatives will continue to target homogeneous working class areas, Labour will continue to thrive in more ethnically diverse ones.

Labour leader Sir Keir Starmer with Kim Leadbeater in the Batley and Spen by-election.

Such findings will give Labour’s leader, Sir Keir Starmer some crumbs of comfort. He will be breathing a huge sigh of relief. Had he lost a second by-election in a row, his growing critics, especially on the Left on the Labour Party, might have provoked a leadership contest.

However, such talk was always overblown. Labour has no history of getting rid of its sub-optimal leaders. No Labour leader has resigned from office since George Lansbury in 1935.

One of the very good reasons why sitting Labour leaders have stayed in office is the very high hurdle or threshold put in place by Neil Kinnock in 1988, which means that 20 per cent of MPs have to sign their names to hold a leadership contest in the first place.

In the current parliamentary party, that means that about 40 Labour MPs would have commit to Labour holding a leadership contest in the autumn at the party’s annual conference.

This was Boris Johnson campaigning in Batley on Monday.

Thanks to a further rule change by Jeremy Corbyn, the incumbent leader is guaranteed a place on the ballot paper – irrespective of their support among MPs. So, for now at any rate, Starmer is in a relatively strong position.

Nevertheless, the national picture is still pretty bleak for Labour. The Conservatives are a good 10 points ahead in the opinion polls. Meanwhile, Starmer’s personal approval ratings show six in 10 voters believe he is 
doing a bad job as Leader of the Opposition.

In the eyes of northern working class voters, the Labour leader is another posh, Islington lawyer, part of an establishment elite, who cannot possibly understand their concerns.

Moreover, Starmer’s fellow MPs looked on in horror after the party’s poor local election results in May when he sacked Angela Rayner as his campaign co-ordinator – and then promoted her. In his first real test of leadership, it appeared, even to his former allies, that Starmer was wobbly in command.

So, what can Sir Keir do to turn things around for Labour? Starmer will argue that he has already been pro-active, reorganising his office even before the by-election result. His recent appointment of Deborah Mattinson as director of strategy suggests he understands the challenges facing Labour. Mattinson is the author of an important new book, explaining why Labour lost its ‘red wall’ seats in the North at the last election.

Starmer’s strategy thus far has been to look like a credible Prime Minister-in-waiting, taking a broadly supportive stance over Covid, while holding the Government to account.

However, as a result of the Covid pandemic, no Leader of the Opposition has ever suffered such a low profile. While the Government has bossed 
the airwaves, holding press 
conference after press conference, Starmer been has stuck in his spare room talking to a blank screen, denied the big platform occasions like the annual party conference, to help boost his profile.

However, Starmer could have done much more in the last year to boost his social media profile. To borrow a phrase, is the Labour leader an analogue politician in a digital age?

One solution in this area would be to enlist the help of former Labour leader, Ed Miliband. Since resigning as leader, the Doncaster North MP has not only had a sense of humour transplant, but he has also developed a formidable following on social media which Starmer should seek to emulate.

Sometimes in Opposition, political parties just have to plug away until the political tide turns. For months, Labour has been attacking Tory sleaze without success. Then last week, the Health Secretary, Matt Hancock, was forced to resign.

When the history of this period is written, there will always be more than a sneaking suspicion that the Conservatives narrowly failed to win in Batley and Spen because of growing accusations of Tory sleaze.

There is an old saying in politics that it’s not Oppositions that win elections, it’s Governments that lose them. Eventually, this Government will come unstuck, not through the best endeavours of Her Majesty’s Opposition, but through its own decadence and corruption. That is how Ancient Rome fell, and it how this Government will fall too. The question this weekend is when?

* Mark Stuart is a political academic from York who is also the author of biographies of John Smith and Douglas Hurd.

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