(Bloomberg Opinion) -- Britain’s opposition Labour party clung to its northern constituency of Batley and Spen by 323 votes over Boris Johnson’s Conservatives in a by-election on Thursday night.
This perhaps would not be of vast concern were it not for the showdown signaling a potential Waterloo moment for Keir Starmer. A third defeat in MP contests in as many months would have hobbled Labour’s leader — and emboldened a left-wing faction within the party to foment a coup against him. He can rest easier for now.
By-elections are remembered in British politics for what prompts them as well as for their outcomes. Batley and Spen will always be remembered as a tragic, if thankfully rare, moment when politically motivated violence claimed the life of a lawmaker.
The winner, Kim Leadbeater, entered politics after Jo Cox, her sister and the former Labour MP for Batley and Spen, was murdered in the 2016 European referendum by a far-right extremist. Leadbeater defeated the Tory candidate as well as the far-left Labour defector George Galloway, who came in third with 22% of the vote. All decent democrats should applaud her victory.
Leadbeater rose above an ugly campaign of naked attempts to whip up racial tensions in a northern English constituency with a substantial Muslim vote. She herself fought a clean election and defied intimidation and personal homophobic abuse on the streets. Had she lost, it would have been a victory for divisiveness and anti-Semitic politics directed against her leader — the Jewish heritage of Starmer’s wife was raised during the campaign and the leader has promised no mercy for anti-Semites in the party. Had Galloway divided the left-wing vote enough to gift the Tories a win, as many expected, that would have left a nasty taste in the mouth.
The (immediate) pressure is off Starmer for now. A Labour defeat would almost certainly have brought forth a leadership challenge from disgruntled MPs. Still, he must know that an opposition party with a serious prospect of power should not be struggling to keep seats it already holds.
Although one opinion poll six weeks ago suggested that the Conservatives might take the constituency, the resignation of Health Minister Matt Hancock less than a week earlier — for breaking his own social-distancing regulations while engaging in an extramarital affair — should have made Labour a shoe-in. And yet it scraped by with only a 35% share of the vote, its lowest in the constituency since 1983.
Galloway, a formidable if unpleasant campaigner who has won by-elections from Labour before, poked the party’s sore spots. On average, the opposition is still 9% behind the Conservatives in national polls.
In his campaign, Galloway laid out the (exaggerated) charge sheet, calling Starmer “a desiccated, robotic creature” and saying his party has lost touch with its former working-class base. Even many metropolitan liberals fear Galloway is right when he alleges, “the white working class viscerally hate the university-educated, Guardian-reading, virtue-signalling classes who regard them as deplorables, as flag-waving racists.”
It’s no surprise that Starmer is trying to recast his image. He was only elected to Parliament in 2015 and it shows. He panicked after the Tories won last May’s local elections and the Hartlepool by-election and led a clumsy reshuffle of his shadow cabinet. This time round, he has learned to talk up his narrow victory as a major success. That’s progress of sorts.
However, Labour’s central problem is that the Conservative party has united the entire right-of-center voting bloc in England under its banner. The achievement of Brexit peeled off some of Labour’s anti-European voters, and the country’s successful vaccination drive has kept approval ratings high. Johnson’s cheerful cynicism chimes with the public’s perception of the Westminster class.
The left-of-center remains seriously split. The ideologically incoherent Liberal Democrats won the last by-election against the Tories in an affluent southern constituency where Labour came second in the last general election. The Greens, who made advances in the local elections in May, withdrew from the Batley and Spen race after its candidate’s vile social media profile was revealed — that piece of good luck might just have tipped the balance for Labour. Outside England, nationalist parties, notably in Scotland, have whittled away Labour’s former overwhelming majorities. It is hard to see Starmer winning a U.K.-wide election without the support of these minor parties.
Even Starmer’s most articulate cheerleader, Tony Blair’s former strategist, Lord Peter Mandelson, admitted Friday that he has yet “to show we are a competitive, viable alternative to the Tories.”
What does Labour and its leader stand for? It is an existential conundrum common to most European social democratic parties, but the Tories’ protean ability to shape-shift makes the task of defining Starmer’s distinct values uniquely difficult.
Once a socially liberal but economically conservative party that backed “austerity,” Johnson’s Tories have presided over a high spending, interventionist government that partly won one important by-election by nationalizing the local airport. On immigration and Brexit, their hardline positions appeal to the “left-behind” voters in small towns.
Starmer has tried to challenge the government on its incompetence, influence peddling and scandals without much electoral reward so far. In September he will have the chance to craft a clear strategy for the Labour party conference. After Batley and Spen, he has the breathing space. Now he must show he can do more than hold the line.
This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.
Martin Ivens was editor of the Sunday Times from 2013 to 2020 and was formerly its chief political commentator. He is a director of the Times Newspapers board.
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