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It was at just after dawn, at 5.14 am, that Keir Starmer was passed the intel that his party was close to winning its first new MP under his leadership. Already wide awake at his north London home, he got the news from the local campaign team in Batley and Spen that the Tories had called for a “bundle check” of votes at the by-election count.
“That was the puff of white smoke that we’d pulled off a big win,” one insider tells me. That feeling that this was indeed a big win, albeit with a small majority (323 votes), summed up the mix of joy and relief among Labour MPs, volunteers and staffers who had thrown everything into the seat in the past week. It was the dawn chorus they needed.
When the result was confirmed at 5.27am, Starmer swiftly 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 main messages of the day: “Labour is back”, “Kim is Labour at its best” and “this is just the start”.
But Starmer now needs to answer the question: start of what? On one simple level, it’s the start of getting into the habit of winning again. If the Hartlepool by-election was the political equivalent of electric shock therapy, Batley felt to some MPs like their party was waking up from a coma. Many felt it had been a mistake to let Hartlepool obscure other successes on May 6 in big city mayoralties and southern councils.
For several MPs, however, the most important “start” will be a new confidence from Starmer himself, coupled with a fresh strategy for reconnecting with lost voters. When he addresses the parliamentary Labour party of MPs and peers on Monday night, he is expected to set out just how determined he is to change the party’s perceptions among the public.
When Leadbeater takes her seat in the Commons chamber, just metres from the shield dedicated to her late sister Jo, there will be more than a few tears on both sides of the House. The PLP meeting will be held by Zoom, but if it were held on Committee Room 14, one can imagine the cheers would be heard far away down the corridor.
Leadbeater is in some ways the answer to the definitional questions that Starmer has himself struggled to provide over recent months. Her overriding message of unity over division, of a sense of healing the nation after both Brexit and the Covid pandemic, will have to be Labour’s main pitch at the next election.
Starmer has tried his own version of that message at various points recently, not least as Boris Johnson pushes his “Red Wall, red meat” strategy of fuelling “culture war” grievances (real and imagined) alive. But Leadbeater is the living embodiment of the idea that there is common ground among much of the public, if only politicians have the bravery to embrace it.
And it’s somehow fitting that the new MP for Batley and Spen may well owe her victory to the viral video clip that many in Labour feel was the real turning point in the contest. Not the grainy CCTV of Matt Hancock’s “hypocrisy hug”, but the footage of Leadbeater standing up to an anti-LGBT activist who tried to shout her down in the street.
Tory voters in more rural parts of the constituency gave the feedback that they were struck by her courage, and her message that she was a real local. Older Asian voters were similarly impressed, I’m told. Leadbeater had never lived anywhere other than the constituency (she had lived in eight different homes in the same seat, which is quite something) and it showed.
Similarly, her focus on potholes and policing resonated. We’ve seen in both Hartlepool (where the Labour council was blamed for poor public services) and Chesham (where the Tory council was blamed for national planning reforms) that the local/national dynamic can swing by-elections. In Batley, Labour pinned the blame for the police station closure on national cuts.
Naturally, when such fine margins are involved, there will always be multiple reasons found for the result (the Greens losing a candidate, Galloway winning some former Heavy Woollen District independents instead of the Tories, Labour’s huge ground operation, Conservative near-silence, a string of right-wing candidates). Yet in our first-past-the-post system, a win is always a win, and no more so than in a by-election.
Starmer signalled today that instead of facing a summer leadership challenge, he would now carry out his plan for a summer meet-the-voters campaign. “As we come out of the pandemic and out of restrictions..the space finally opens up for me to make the arguments about the future,” he said. I’m told that jobs and crime will be the focus, tying together economic and physical security.
Labour MPs certainly hope that there will be a new energy and directness to Starmer’s leadership, and say that even a narrow win in Batley can create the momentum (with a small ‘m’) he has long needed. They hope that he can follow-through with bolder messaging to use party conference as a platform for finally showing the public who he really is.
The danger is that Starmer just banks the win, and repeats what he’s been doing the past six months. The opportunity is that Batley proved, like Chesham, the PM has lost his invincibility cloak. It also highlights the perils of complacency, both on the part of local Tory campaign and on the part of the PM in not sacking Matt Hancock.
The hard fact is that Labour had just 198 MPs before Batley and it still has just 198 MPs after it. Though it may be hoping for a return to ‘normal’ politics after the pandemic, there’s nothing normal about the huge challenge the party still faces. Edging it in a by-election is not the same as the real confidence boost of being consistently ahead in the national polls.
Most of all, to become the ‘change’ candidate at the next election, some of his MPs believe Starmer has to do more to show he has changed Labour and will change Britain. But at least Kim Leadbeater has provided a glimmer of hope that he can win back some of the Tory votes he needs.
This article originally appeared on HuffPost UK and has been updated.