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Pollwatch: 10 things we learned from Batley and Spen

Chris Hopkins Political Research Director 02/07/2021

Labour's Kim Leadbeater has scraped a win in yesterday's Batley and Spen by-election after a bitter campaign, but what does it mean for the wider political landscape?

This result, however, will not end up being an endorsement of Keir Starmer by the people of Batley & Spen...

1. First, let’s start with the results: Labour held Batley and Spen with a reduced majority of 323, down from over 3,500 at the previous election. By-elections of course behave differently to other elections, particularly in terms of turnout, so while a reduced majority for the incumbent is no surprise, the fact remains that Labour held this with very little margin for error.

2. But of course, this victory in Labour circles feels more than just a narrow by-election hold this morning. The #narrative for the last few weeks, even up to Thursday afternoon, was that Labour were toast in a seat they’d held since 1997, defeated by a mixture of a redrawing of the UK electoral map, George Galloway’s Workers Party of Great Britain splitting their vote, and the Conservatives simply being more popular nationally. The fact that they managed to turn things around last minute will be seen as a triumph.

3. For Boris Johnson and the Conservatives, who have given an impression of imperiousness throughout 2021, recent by-election results have shown they are more than beatable. Yes, Hartlepool was impressive, but losing Chesham and Amersham and then failing to take the open goal of Batley and Spen, when the ‘left’ vote was split and your party is considerably more popular nationally, may give the Conservatives some pause for thought that they’re not going to have it all their own way.

4. This result will end up being an endorsement of Labour’s strategy and campaign effectiveness. Choosing a local candidate with personal appeal, actively recruited by Keir Starmer, along with a crucial get out the vote drive on the final day helped by flooding activists into the seat, still has an effect on the outcome. It may feel a little ‘old-school’, and its impact is possibly extenuated during by-elections where there’s less of a national ‘air war’ between the parties like there would be at a general election, Labour played to its strengths and when the margin of victory is so narrow, overlooking the impact of such a strategy would be foolish.

5. This result, however, will not end up being an endorsement of Keir Starmer by the people of Batley & Spen. LabourList report campaign literature notable for its omission of both the party and its leader, focusing instead on the candidate, Kim Leadbeater. The narrow margin of victory also just shows how uncomfortable this ended up being, and while all of the factors in point 4 contributed to the victory, there’s little evidence to point to this being a great endorsement of the Labour leader or the direction of the party.

6. What this will provide Starmer with, though, is a stay of execution. Losing two by-elections to an incumbent government within your first 15 months in office should have been the writing on the wall for Starmer, but the vultures circling around him ready to mount a leadership challenge now have to retreat. How Starmer deals with this disloyalty will be interesting to follow, and this is unlikely to be the last we hear in the battle between Keir Starmer and Angela Rayner.

7. Loath as I am to even mention George Galloway, his impact on this campaign was notable. I’m not going to get into his own brand of divisive politics, but his presence forced Labour into battling him and not the Conservatives, while Boris Johnson’s party simply hoped to keep their head down and waltz to an easy victory. This was exacerbated because this was a by-election and Galloway gonna Galloway, but it does speak to a wider issue; with no Reform UK causing the Conservatives a headache anymore, the ‘right’ vote is considerably less fractured than the ‘left’, and at a general election Labour may end up splitting their vote with a host of other parties in key seats, allowing the Conservatives to take a victory.

8. Electoral pacts have been sought recently between the Green Party, Liberal Democrats and Plaid Cymru. Labour are almost certainly not going to entertain such an idea, but they will need to effectively understand who the ‘enemy’ is in each seat and make sure they do enough to hold onto their own vote without it splintering in multiple directions, allowing the Conservatives to win seats without turning up.

9. The people of Batley and Spen have been through the mill, with some tactics in this by-election seeking to further entrench division and evidence of activists being assaulted and candidates being subjected to vile abuse, all in a seat where a previous MP, Jo Cox, was murdered by a far-right terrorist. The victory for Labour this morning will feel all the sweeter in knowing that their candidate, Jo Cox’s sister, was able to rise above the abuse and deliver a victory.

10. A final word on polling: by-election polling is hard, and Survation are generally the only ones to do it. Their poll, published more than a fortnight ago, obviously differed from the final result, so any critique of it, frankly, is crazy. Conservative activists have conceded that Matt Hancock’s shenanigans had an impact on the doorstep, Galloway got even more divisive in the latter stages of the campaign, and there were 16 candidates, all things that would contribute to a poll published in mid-June not being an accurate reflection of the result a fortnight later. Polls are snapshots in time, and without any real data on how by-election campaigns affect vote intention, it’s impossible to know what the state of play in Batley and Spen looked like in the final days of the campaign.

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