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It was just after sunrise, at 5:14 a.m., when Keir Starmer broke news that his party was on the verge of winning its first new MP under his leadership. At his home in north London, he was wide awake when he received news from the local campaign team in Batley and Spen that the Tories had requested a “bundle check” of votes in the by-election.
“That was the white puff of smoke that we made a big profit with,” an insider tells me. The feeling that this was indeed a huge victory, albeit with a small majority (323 votes), summed up the mixture of joy and relief among Labor MPs, volunteers and staff who had tossed everything on the seat over the past week . It was the morning choir they needed.
When the result was confirmed at 5:27 am, Starmer quickly tweeted that Kim Leadbeater was a “brilliant and brave” candidate who had run a “positive campaign of hope.” And when he joined her in the constituency, he repeated the most important messages of the day: “Labor is back”, “Kim is Labor at its best” and “This is only the start”.
But Starmer now has to answer the question: what begins? At a simple level, it’s the beginning of getting used to winning again. If Hartlepool’s by-election was the political equivalent of electroshock therapy, Batley felt for some MPs that their party was emerging from a coma. Many believed it was a mistake to let Hartlepool disguise other successes in major city mayorships and southern councils on May 6.
For several MPs, however, the most important “start” will be a new confidence from Starmer himself, coupled with a new strategy to reconnect with lost voters. When he spoke to MPs and colleagues in front of the Labor Party on Monday evening, he was supposed to demonstrate how determined he is to change the public’s perception of the party.
When Leadbeater takes her place in the House of Commons, just yards from the sign dedicated to her late sister, Jo, more than a few tears will flow on either side of the house. The PLP meeting is being held by Zoom, but if it were held in Committee Room 14 it can be imagined that the cheers would be heard far away in the hallway.
In a way, Leadbeater is the answer to the definition questions that Starmer has struggled with over the past few months. Your overwhelming message of unity rather than division, the feeling of healing the nation after both Brexit and the Covid pandemic, must be Labor’s main theme in the next election.
Starmer has tried his own version of this message in a number of places lately, not least when Boris Johnson is pushing his “Red Wall, Red Meat” strategy to lively stir up (real and imagined) “culture war” grievances. But Leadbeater is the living embodiment of the idea that if only politicians have the courage to accept it, a large part of the public will have a common ground.
And it somehow fits that the new MP from Batley and Spen owes her victory to the viral video clip that many in Labor see as the real turning point in the competition. Not the grainy CCTV of Matt Hancock’s “Hypocrisy Hug,” but the footage of Leadbeater confronting an anti-LGBT activist who tried to yell at her in the street.
Tory voters in more rural parts of the constituency gave the feedback that they were impressed with her courage and her message that she was a true local. Older Asian voters were just as impressed as I was told. Leadbeater had never lived anywhere but in the constituency (she had lived in eight different houses in the same seat, which was quite a lot) and it showed.
Her focus on potholes and policing was also well received. We have seen in both Hartlepool (where the Labor Council was blamed for poor public services) and Chesham (where the Tory Council was blamed for national planning reforms) that local / national dynamics can swing by-elections. In Batley, Labor blamed nationwide cuts to shut down the police station.
Of course, when it comes to such fine margins, there will always be multiple reasons for the outcome (the Greens lose a candidate, Galloway recruits some former Heavy Woolen District independents to replace the Tories, Labour’s huge ground operation, Conservative near-silence row of right-wing candidates ). But in our first-past-the-post system, a victory is always a victory, and no more than a by-election.
Starmer signaled today that instead of taking on a summer leadership role, he would now implement his plan for a summer meet the voters campaign. “When we get out of the pandemic and the restrictions, the space will finally open up for me to make the arguments about the future,” he said. I have been told that jobs and crime are paramount and that economic and physical security are linked.
Labor MPs certainly hope that Starmer’s leadership will regain energy and directness, saying that even a narrow victory in Batley can generate the momentum (with a small “m”) he has long needed. They hope he can move on with bolder news to use the party convention as a platform to finally show the public who he really is.
The danger is that Starmer will just take the win and repeat what he’s done for the past six months. The opportunity is that Batley has proven that the Prime Minister, like Chesham, has lost his invincibility cloak. It also highlights the dangers of complacency on the part of both the local Tory campaign and the Prime Minister’s part in not firing Matt Hancock.
The hard fact is that Labor only had 198 MPs before Batley and only 198 MPs since. While it may hope for a return to “normal” politics after the pandemic, the major challenge the party still faces is nothing normal. Beating them in a by-election is not the same as the real confidence boost of consistently leading the national polls.
To be the “Change” candidate in the next election, some of his MPs believe Starmer needs to do more to show that he has changed Labor and will change Britain. But at least Kim has given Leadbeater a glimmer of hope that he can win back some of the Tory votes he needs.