By the narrowest of margins, my party woke to the news of victory in Batley and Spen. Led by a brave, energetic and locally-rooted candidate in Kim Leadbeater – and supported by activists, the unsung heroes of elections – the Labour campaign made it over the line.
In place of a Tory MP who doubtless would have walked through the House of Commons lobbies behind his party – on everything from opposing free school meals, to voting down Grenfell inquiry recommendations – Labour has an MP who showed her mettle in the campaign. That is to be celebrated.
Yet it would be a mistake for the party to fall into complacency. In 2017, Labour won a stonking 55 per cent of the vote in the constituency. In 2019, with Brexit disastrously splitting our electoral coalition, that figure was 42 per cent. But yesterday it was down to just 35 per cent.
This downward trend from 2019 isn’t isolated. Less than two months ago, the Tories strolled to victory in Hartlepool, a seat Labour had held twice under Jeremy Corbyn, securing 52 per cent just four years earlier. And while some people wanted to explain the Tories’ success by the supposed “vaccine bounce”, the Liberal Democrat’s shock victory in the Chesham and Amersham by-election last month poured cold water on that idea.
The focus in Hartlepool was once-core Labour voters, for whom the Leave vote had entrenched disillusionment with the party and who were unwooed by a vocal Remainer imposed on the local party.
Batley and Spen brought into sharp focus another – often overlooked – part of Labour’s core support: its Muslim voters. In 2019, 86 per cent British Muslims voted Labour. They helped the party secure victories in seats like Batley and Spen, where around a fifth of voters are Muslim. Yesterday, waning support from this community almost cost Labour the seat.
From my own experience, I know that many Muslims feel the current leadership has taken them for granted. The evidence backs this up. A recent poll found that while 72 per cent of Muslims have a favourable view of the party, net support for the leadership is -7 per cent. In Batley and Spen, this upset was loud and clear, creating an opening for an opportunist like George Galloway.
This dissatisfaction can’t be reduced to any single issue. Many think that the party isn’t taking Islamophobia seriously and there is anger at the leadership’s refusal to stand up for the people of Palestine and Kashmir. The electoral impact of this in Batley and Spen shows the error in the narrowed-minded view that “ordinary people” don’t care about “foreign” issues. And for a community disproportionately impoverished and hit by Covid-19, the leadership’s refusal to strongly oppose the government this past year has been a serious let down.
If Hartlepool told the tale of Leave voters increasingly abandoning Labour, and Batley and Spen is the story of Muslim dissatisfaction, there is a third group whose disillusionment with Labour may be less immediately apparent, but is just as real and ominous: young people.
In the last decade, age has become one of politics’ central fault lines, with my generation strongly gravitating to the left. In 2019, Labour won the support of 56 per cent of 18-24 year olds, compared to the Tories’ 21 per cent. But with the leadership’s move to the right, support from young people is plummeting, with Keir Starmer’s net approval amongst 18-24 year olds at -44 per cent. This is yet to find expression in a parliamentary election, but there were glimpses of it in the May local elections, with youthful cities like Sheffield and Bristol moving Green, not red.
Peter Mandelson reportedly once said that Labour didn’t need to worry about working class voters because “they have nowhere else to go”. Five million lost votes in the New Labour years was testament to the damage of that approach. Now, with support collapsing from once-loyal groups like Muslims and young people, the party risks repeating that error.
And whether it’s older voters in Hartlepool, Muslims in Batley and Spen, or young people in cities, a common problem has emerged: people don’t know what the party stands for. Alienating our base while adrift in a policy vacuum: this is a recipe for political redundancy.
The Batley and Spen victory must not conceal Labour’s need to address this fundamental issue, and this isn’t simply a matter of electoral survival. Staring us in the face is a crisis that will eclipse even the pandemic: the climate emergency.
This poses a world-historical challenge. But for the Labour Party, it also provides an opportunity. Where vision is currently absent, the climate emergency creates a pressing need for radical ideas. And fortunately for the party, the answers to the challenges of electoral and planetary survival coincide: a people’s Green New Deal.
This transformative programme would rapidly decarbonise our economy, tackle poverty and regional inequalities, and create millions of good, new green jobs in the process. Such an offer, for national renewal and environmental sustainability, has the potential to unite all parts of our historic electoral coalition.
We need a people’s Green New Deal to save the planet, but it might just be the best hope for reversing Labour’s downward spiral as well. What are we waiting for?
Zarah Sultana is the Labour MP for Coventry South