“The people of Batley and Spen have rejected division and voted for hope.” At least, that’s what the people of Batley and Spen’s new MP, Kim Leadbeater, reckons. They didn’t reject division by much, though. Division, in the form of Tory candidate Ryan Stephenson, came just 323 votes behind hope, on 12,973 vs 13,296. And if you chuck the 8,000 votes for George Galloway into the mix as well, then overall, it was a very strong night for division.
If division had just fought a slightly better ground campaign, it definitely could have nicked it. Division is going absolutely nowhere.
Not that hope will mind. Hope, in the form of Keir Starmer, could hardly be more thrilled. Even he had hardly bothered trying to prevent the Batley and Spen by-election being portrayed as a referendum on his leadership, and he has now won that referendum, by a massive 323 votes.
All these rather mad by-elections of late have taken place in their own very specific microclimate. Brexit-venerating Hartlepool, HS2-loathing Chesham and Amersham, and now a vicious, toxic fight in Batley and Spen, which had been deliberately and cynically transformed into a proxy war over issues such as the suppression of Muslims in Kashmir, do not together add up to much in the way of lessons for Starmer to learn.
When Labour lost so many of its most dependable seats in 2019, the MPs kicked out of those seats wasted no time at all in blaming everything on Jeremy Corbyn, so it’s hardly unreasonable that the same questions might be asked of Starmer, whose results since 2019 have been every bit as bad, and arguably worse.
When Leadbeater was asked whether Starmer had been a help or a hindrance for her, she replied that the “vast majority” of her conversations with voters during the campaign were not about national issues. “The focus of the campaign was very much listening to local people,” she said.
An accomplished politician’s answer, that, and from someone who’s only been, strictly speaking, a professional politician for a couple of hours.
The challenge facing Starmer is the same as it has been since day one. To give people a reason to vote for him, to show that he’s more serious about “levelling up” the country than Boris Johnson is. But for the time being, people don’t care very much about all that; they just want the pandemic over and done with.
And at time of writing, there is precious little evidence to suggest they blame Johnson for the scale of the disaster it has been, even though his own former chief of staff very publicly, and quite rightly, blames him for it, in intricate detail. He even has the screenshots.
It does seem somewhat peculiar that Starmer chose to play very little role in what amounted to the public shaming of Matt Hancock, an issue that captured the nation’s attention like very few in the past year or so.
Grubby politics is not his natural environment, but grubby politics self-evidently has its place. It might be nice when the voters reject division and choose hope, but on this and the accumulated evidence of the past five years, they really cannot always be relied upon to do so.