There have been some sensational by-election victories in the past. The first Liberal victory in a secure Conservative seat in Orpington in 1962; the breakthrough of the Scottish National Party in Hamilton in 1967; the liberal destruction of Labor in Bermondsey in 1983; George Galloway’s stealthy victory at Bradford West in 2012. But Labor’s victory at Batley and Spen is one of the most surprising and significant.
Batley and Spen was, indeed, a Conservative seat. Labor held it in the last general election only because Paul Halloran, a pro-Brexit independent, split the Conservative vote. It looks like a string of constituencies that voted to leave the EU in the referendum, but where Labor held firm because the Brexit Party came forward, as Nigel Farage felt they weren’t seats Conservative targets. They include Hartlepool, which the Tories easily won in the by-election less than two months ago, Ed Miliband’s seat in Doncaster, and Yvette Cooper’s seat in Normanton.
This means Labor has gained ground here where it has lost ground at Hartlepool. Not all voting seats in the North are the same, but they are similar enough that this result comes as a shock. Particularly because Galloway, the spoiler candidate, probably got more votes from Labor Kim Leadbeater than Conservative Ryan Stephenson.
It was also a surprise, because there had been an opinion poll in the riding in mid-June which gave the Conservatives a 6-point lead. If the campaign had been anything like this in Hartlepool it should have been the end, because in Hartlepool support for Labor continued to run out every day until election day.
It means two things. First, it is a reminder that it is difficult to conduct riding polls. This one was based on a sample of 510, of which only 323 gave an intention to vote, so the margin of error was easily enough to erase that Tory lead. Second, it means that Batley and Spen’s campaign was very different from Hartlepool’s. Kim Leadbeater was a stronger candidate than Paul Williams: energetic, outgoing and decidedly local. The organization of work, not distracted by the local elections, was better. And Galloway’s intervention gave the campaign a story.
The last few weeks have been dominated by the clash between Galloway and Leadbeater, summed up by the visual image of Leadbeater being yelled at in the street by Galloway supporters but appearing to be defending himself. It seems to have galvanized Labor support and changed the story to one of Labor passivity and neglect.
Galloway did much better than the Survation poll suggested, winning 22% of the vote instead of 6%, and yet Labor still managed to shake it up and win. The result invokes the Cowley paradox that a Labor victory with a margin of less than 1 percent should be no more important than an equally narrow Conservative victory, and yet it transforms the national political picture. It could be the environmental candidate who dropped out of the competition because of his past homophobic tweets that made the difference for Labor.
The immediate effect is to end speculation about Keir Starmer’s position as Labor leader. Galloway stood on a ‘Starmer Out’ platform and the Labor Party won. Labor was able to resist his divisive policy, and Corbyn’s supporters who wanted Galloway to succeed have now been completely defeated. Batley and Spen is truly the end of the road for Corbynism.
Starmer has shown he can turn the tide in the Red Wall. He can, in fact, win Conservative seats.
Equally important, Labor’s victory at Batley and Spen changes Boris Johnson’s story. Hartlepool’s miracle vote was brought down to earth by the normal laws of politics, which is that governments do not win by-election seats. The cynical pre-election moment of the Prime Minister’s visit to Nissan’s Sunderland plant yesterday, to coincide with the company’s announcement that it would create 1,600 jobs, failed to work its magic on voters from West Yorkshire.
This means that Starmer, who has put Boris Johnson on the defensive during Prime Minister’s Questions this week, will continue to assert his advantage. As Labor begins to close the gap in national opinion polls, it will be the turn of Tory MPs to feel nervous.
John Rentoul to host ‘Ask Me Anything’ live on Batley and Spen result today at 4 p.m.