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Batley and Spen: why failure is not an option for Keir Starmer

One of the lesser-known results in the 2021 local elections saw the current Labour MP for Batley and Spen, Tracy Brabin, win election to a different post, that of West Yorkshire Metro Mayor.

Brabin defeated her Conservative opponent in a 20-point rout after second preferences were counted. But what promises to be much less comfortable, at least for those of a progressive persuasion, is the subsequent by-election that will be held on 1st July, to replace Brabin, even despite the tragic history that surrounds Batley and Spen.

Situated in West Yorkshire, the constituency of Batley and Spen has been held by the Labour Party ever since 1997, and until 2016, was known for little else besides being a safe Labour seat. But British politics was shaken on 16th June 2016 when, a week before the EU referendum, Batley and Spen’s MP, Jo Cox, was murdered in broad daylight by a far-right terrorist, who is now serving a life sentence.

Rightfully, Cox’s family received tributes from across the world and politicians of all colours came together to remember her legacy and defy the forces of hatred. In the subsequent by-election to replace her, no major political party fielded a candidate, out of respect for Cox. No surprise, therefore, that Labour’s Tracy Brabin won the resultant election, with 86% of the vote, albeit on extremely low turnout.

But whether we like it or not, the world moves on quickly. The demographic and political trends that have seen Labour significantly lose ground in its former northern heartlands are just as poignant in Batley and Spen. At the 2019 general election, Brabin held onto the seat with a heavily reduced majority of just 3,500 votes, or 6.7%. And after the Conservatives’ resounding win in Hartlepool barely a month ago, the Tories must be feeling incredibly bullish about their chances of pulling yet another brick out of the so-called ‘Red Wall’.

For the Labour Party, however, this by-election holds a political and emotional significance paralleled only by the 2016 by-election which took place shortly after Jo Cox’s death. Losing the seat which belonged to a much-loved Labour icon, who inspired the nation to unite against hate, is a bitterly painful prospect for the Labour membership. It would be nothing less than utterly heartbreaking, and crush the already wearied spirits of progressive activists across the nation. Essentially, it would be like losing Hartlepool ten times over.

Not only would losing Batley and Spen worsen morale in the Labour Party but explaining it would be incredibly difficult for the leadership. Despite the disastrous result suffered in Hartlepool, the caveat that many pointed to was the high vote share attained by Nigel Farage’s Brexit Party in 2019, which ironically helped Labour by splitting the right-wing vote. Put together, the Conservatives and the Brexit Party achieved far more votes than Labour, and had Farage not stood anyone in Hartlepool, there is no doubt that the Tories would have captured the seat easily.

In Batley and Spen, however, support for the Brexit Party was much more modest – a meagre 1700-odd votes, or 3.2%. Labour may point to the fact that independent Paul Halloran, who came a distant but respectable 3rd in 2019, and Laurence Fox’s Reclaim movement jointly declined to run in an open effort to hinder a Labour victory. But any excuse-making this time would likely wash down as a case of fool-me-twice. The reality of the matter is that this seat is (and ought to be) winnable, especially given this constituency’s recent history.

In the event of a loss, there will be a feeling of total desolation within the Labour leadership and more importantly, the membership. The late Jo Cox’s seat turning blue will be perceived as unthinkable, and over time, this sadness will turn to anger, with Labour supporters demanding to know why Keir Starmer has failed yet another key electoral litmus test, especially in a constituency so emotionally important to the party, in a broader area of great strategic importance that continues to slip further and further into Tory hands.

There is still a very good chance that Labour can stop the electoral rot by holding onto Batley and Spen. There will be no less than 16 different candidates on the ballot, and since many of them represent right-wing parties (such as the Freedom Party, For Britain, the English Democrats and UKIP to name just a few), I see this congested by-election as more of a threat to the Tories than to Labour.

Moreover, Labour have selected a solid candidate, namely, Jo Cox’s sister, Kim Leadbeater. Despite not hitherto being a member of the party (owing to the potential conflict of interest it would cause with her charity work), she has a reputation of standing up for her community and has an excellent background as an ambassador for the Jo Cox Foundation and as a campaigner against loneliness during COVID-19, for which she received an MBE at the beginning of the year.

On paper, therefore, there is little reason why Labour shouldn’t be able to retain this seat. Yes, Labour has struggled in the north-east, but with a strong candidate and a more favourable political context, it’s time for Keir Starmer to push back the blue tide that has washed away Labour’s fortunes in the north of England. He has promised to re-engage with working-class voters who have abandoned the party in droves, and Batley and Spen is the perfect opportunity to turn rhetoric into results.

For me, a loss in Batley and Spen could, and arguably should, mark the beginning of the end of Starmer’s reign. More than a year into his tenure, yet another by-election loss will be interpreted as a sign that nothing has changed and that Labour’s comeback plan is not working. Starmer is already unpopular with those on the left of the party and continuous electoral failures will frustrate even his supporters who inhabit the ideological centre. Faced with the prospect of another snap general election, his own allies would surely also begin to question whether their man has what it takes to reverse Labour’s dire fortunes. Obviously, Starmer inherited a party in total disarray and he made it clear after becoming leader that he would have to clean up the mess before the real progress could begin, but sooner or later, he will have to start taking some of the flak.

Ultimately, the Batley and Spen by-election could be Starmer’s equivalent of Divock Origi’s 7th minute-goal in the second leg of Liverpool’s 2019 Champions League semi-final clash against Barcelona, which sparked an unbelievable comeback triumph. On the other hand, it could prove to be his Waterloo.

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