AMID Labour’s dismal local election results last month and the humiliating by-election loss of Hartlepool, activists seized upon a morsel of hope. Labour MP Tracy Brabin bucked the trend to win the West Yorkshire mayoralty by a convincing margin. She therefore resigned her Batley and Spen seat, and a by-election is to be held on July 1. This glimmer of hope for the Labour leader is rapidly disappearing.
In the wake of May’s elections, Sir Keir Starmer once again pledged to ‘listen and learn’. The intervening period has exposed this corporate-speak for what it is, a whole lotta nothing. Labour’s June has been marked by pro-Palestinian activism, neurotic focus on Pride month, and the same old critique by hindsight that has landed them in the quagmire from which they now desperately seek to escape. The promised shadow cabinet reshuffle imploded when within moments of its commencement it became clear that Sir Keir lacked the authority to shuffle so much as a pack of cards. His deputy Angela Rayner, on whom he attempted to dump the blame for Hartlepool, emerged the victor, and now can claim more titles than Joseph Stalin. The promised policy review has so far amounted to the demand that Boris Johnson sign up to President Biden’s global tax plan. Five years on from the Brexit referendum and Labour has not managed to listen or learn that the people wanted to take back control.
The last 11 years of opposition are testament to Labour’s inability to bin their dud leaders. But two by-election defeats in a row might just be enough to break the habit of a lifetime. Labour held Batley and Spen in 2019 by 3,252 votes. They held Hartlepool by a similar majority of 3,595 in the same year. But the two seats are not directly comparable. While Hartlepool’s overwhelmingly white working-class demography largely favoured Johnson’s new-look Conservative party, the constituency of Batley, which is home to a large ethnic minority population, is less well disposed. Key to Tory success in the former was their ability to convert votes from the Brexit Party at a high ratio. The Brexit Party won 26 per cent of the vote in Hartlepool at the last general election, but just 3 per cent in Batley. Even if all the Batley Brexit Party votes went to the Tory candidate, it wouldn’t be enough to get them over the line, all else being equal. But there are two wild cards in play that threaten the continued tenure of Labour’s leader.
The first is the announcement by Paul Halloran, the leader of the Heavy Woollen District Independents, that he will not contest the by-election. Halloran’s Heavy Woollens grew out of UKIP and at the last election secured more than 12 per cent of the votes in Batley and Spen to come third behind Labour (Brabin) and Conservative. The Heavy Woollen votes are likely to transfer to the Tories at a similar ratio to Brexit Party votes, and could be enough for the Tory candidate, Ryan Stephenson, to win. But what’s more, Halloran’s decision, made in conjunction with Reclaim leader Laurence Fox, makes explicit that the pair, despite their scathing critiques of both parties, do not want to cause a split which would enable a Labour victory.
This message from a popular local politician, and a national figure whose message and stance will be liked by supporters of Halloran and the Tories, could be enough to bury Labour hopes.
But there is a likely last nail in Labour’s coffin in the candidacy of former Labour MP George Galloway, representing the Workers Party of Britain. Just eight miles away and nine years ago, Galloway (then leader of the Respect party) won from Labour by a landslide the constituency of Bradford West, a constituency of not dissimilar demography to Batley. The Left-winger is standing with the express intention of dethroning Starmer as the Labour leader, and to that end plans to siphon off much of Labour’s Muslim support, not least with his vociferous and long-standing backing for the Palestinian cause and his opposition to imperialism. Galloway’s campaign launch attracted several hundred supporters. His headquarters, at which the launch was staged, outshines those of the other candidates. It’s large, in a prime position, and said to be open ‘morning, noon and night’ over the coming month. If this launch is a good indication, and with three weeks of campaigning to come, we can expect Galloway to win around 15 per cent of the vote, and most of it will come from Labour.
So it seems all but certain that it’ll be curtains for Keir. The bookies, who are seldom wrong on these matters, agree, offering the Tories as 1/2 favourites. A defeat in Batley would perfectly encapsulate Labour’s existential crisis. If they can’t retain the votes of socially conservative Muslims, the pro-Brexit working class or Waitrose shoppers, whom do they exist to serve? Even the student protesters and the liberal intelligentsia are in exodus from Labour to the Greens and Liberal Democrats. It is hard to see how Brabin’s West Yorkshire victory can transpire to be anything but a poison chalice which will kill the Labour leader’s ambitions for Number Ten.