Looking Beyond the ‘Red Wall’: the Batley and Spen by-election and the lessons for Labour

CDE member Ryan Swift analyses the consequences from the Batley and Spen by-election to Labour

The Labour Party’s narrow victory by 323 votes in the Batley and Spen by-election is impressive in the circumstances of the contest and provides a positive boost to the party and Keir Starmer’s leadership, but it does not mean that the party can be confident it has arrested its decline in support witnessed in recent years, particularly across the North of England.

While the Batley and Spen result should redress narratives about a homogenous ‘Red Wall’ North, the problems that existed for Labour prior to the by-election are still there and still need to be addressed.

Local Factors

The circumstances of the Batley and Spen by-election were unusual in a number of ways. First, the significance of Kim Leadbeater standing as the Labour candidate was important. Leadbeater, of course, is the sister of the constituencies former MP, Jo Cox, who was murdered there in 2016. Leadbeater’s connection to the seat both through her sister’s memory and through her being local to the area, as well as her bravery in standing given the circumstances cannot be underestimated.

Additionally, the candidature of George Galloway presented unique challenges for Labour in the by-election. Galloway stood on a clear anti-Labour platform, arguing that a vote for him was a vote against Labour and the leadership of Keir Starmer specifically. Moreover, Galloway and his campaign were responsible for stoking up pre-existing community tensions in the constituency, with Galloway seeking to appeal to Muslim voters by highlighting what he perceived to be Labour’s lack of focus on issues such as Palestine and Kashmir.

The focus of Galloways campaign and the fact that he ended up coming in third place with a respectable 8264 votes makes Leadbeater’s victory all the more impressive. From the evidence of reports on the by-election in recent weeks it is fair to assume that much of Galloway’s support came from former Labour voters.

This suggests that Labour did not lose a significant number of votes to the Conservatives and may actually have taken some former Tory support or that of other parties such as the Heavy Woollen District Independents who polled 12% of the vote in 2019 but did not stand in this election. Whether the delayed final stage of unlocking and the recent scandal surround the former Health Secretary Matt Hancock impacted the Conservative performance is unclear.

There is also some suggestions that Labour could have benefited from former Liberal Democrat voters tactically voting for the party to the deny the Conservatives and Galloway. The absence of a Green Party candidate may also have been of benefit to Labour.

Additionally, the strong Labour ground campaign in contrast to the Conservative campaign, which has received criticism particularly in regard to getting the vote out on polling day, may also have been a significant factor in Labour’s success.

Labour’s Vision

Despite the positives of the campaign, it remains that there is still a lot of work for Labour to do and significant questions persist over the future direction of the party. Although impressive given the circumstances, it is important to remember that Batley and Spen was merely a Labour hold not a gain.

Despite the unique circumstances of the by-election, the fact that Labour’s vote share went down by 7% from the 2019 general election is a cause for concern. Additionally, that the party are still on average over 10 points behind the Conservatives in the polls suggest there is still much work to be done.

The party still appears to lack a distinct message and agenda. Indeed, a recent poll found that 60% of voters do not know what Keir Starmer stands for. While Starmer has reshuffled his leadership team in recent weeks and pledged to get out across the country this summer to listen to voters, there is an increasingly pressing need for Starmer and Labour to set out a coherent vision and explain it to voters.

 Beyond the ‘Red Wall’

More specifically in the context of narratives about Labour’s woes in the North of England, the Batley and Spen result further blurs an already complex picture. Batley and Spen differs significantly from other seats and areas in the North where Labour has struggled in recent years, including Hartlepool where the Conservatives saw success in the by-election in May this year. Sweeping arguments about what Labour must do to appeal to a perceived homogenous North should therefore be viewed with some scepticism.

Labour remains vulnerable in many seats across the North but victory, however narrow it was, in a socio-economically and demographically diverse constituency like Batley and Spen provides a boost. While it would be wrong to read too much into one by-election result, this success, coupled with the positives that the party can take from other results in parts of the North in the local and mayoral elections in May does suggest there is a foundation for Labour to build upon and an electoral coalition to mobilise.

Yet, Labour should be under no illusions about the task that remains ahead. While a pleasing result for the party, holding on to Batley and Spen merely masks over the broader problems of leadership, lack of vision, and lack of connectedness with certain groups of voters that the party needs to address quickly.

Ryan Swift tweets at: @RyanSwift93