Getting to grips with . . .

Batley and Spen by-election: can the Tories take Tracy Brabin’s seat?

Keir Starmer facing fresh electoral challenge as party leader following Hartlepool defeat

Labour is gearing up for another test in its former electoral heartlands as a by-election in the Yorkshire constituency of Batley and Spen looms. 

The election will come hot on the heels of Labour’s loss in Hartlepool, a “red wall” constituency that had been held by the party since 1974 before Conservative Jill Mortimer turned the seat blue earlier this month.

Batley and Spen is the former constituency of Labour MP Jo Cox, who was murdered in 2016.

Why is there a by-election?

The seat is currently held by Labour’s Tracy Brabin, who is stepping down after being elected to be West Yorkshire’s first ever metro mayor. Her new role comprises both mayoral and police crime commissioner responsibilities and cannot be carried out while sitting as an MP.

Brabin won the mayoral post during the “Super Thursday” elections earlier this month, picking up 60.1% of the vote in a run-off with the Conservative candidate after failing to secure a majority in the first round of voting.

Runners and riders

Jo Cox’s younger sister has been chosen by Labour to contest the by-election in the constituency in which the MP was murdered five years ago. Kim Leadbetter, a personal trainer and campaigner, has described herself as “the candidate the Tories fear” after she was selected by more than 80% of Labour members.

A Leeds councillor has been announced as the Conservatives’ candidate for the Batley and Spen by-election. Ryan Stephenson, chair of the West Yorkshire Conservatives, was chosen by local Tories last Wednesday.

Meanwhile, former Labour MP George Galloway - who lost his seat as the Respect Party MP for Bradford West in 2015 - has also announced that his Workers Party of Britain, founded in 2019, will contest the seat.

What were the results in the last Batley vote?

Brabin first won the seat in a by-election in October 2016, four months after Cox was killed by a far-right terrorist during the Brexit referendum campaign. The Conservatives, Liberal Democrats, Green Party and UKIP did not field candidates against Brabin as a mark of respect for her murdered predecessor. 

In the general election the following year, Brabin retained the seat with a 8,961 majority. But in 2019, her majority was reduced to just 3,525 votes - roughly the same size as that of Labour in Hartlepool before last week’s vote.

Why does it matter?

Conservatives will be keen to claim “another Labour scalp” following their success in Hartlepool, says The Times. “Bookmakers have already listed the Tories as favourites for the seat and results from the elections look ominous for Starmer,” the paper reports.

In contrast to Hartlepool prior to last week’s vote, the Tories “have been competitive in Batley and Spen in living memory - holding the seat until 1997”, says The Guardian.

But unlike Hartlepool, “which many expected to fall to the Conservatives” despite Labour’s long reign in power there, Batley and Spen is a more tightly contested constituency, the paper continues. The area’s demographic make-up is among a variety of factors that make the upcoming by-election outcome “much more unpredictable”. 

One in three adults in Batley are “economically inactive - far higher than Britain’s average of 21%”, while the percentage of the local population who are of Asian heritage is more than double the UK average of 6.9%.

On the other hand, an analysis by The Times of the West Yorkshire marginal’s local election results shows a 17-point swing in favour of the Tories across the constituency’s six wards, which “would be enough to deliver the Tories a second consecutive by-election victory”, says the newspaper’s Red Box editor Patrick Maguire.

However, the announcement that not only Cox’s sister intends to run but also Galloway, the “victor of another famous by-election in nearby Bradford nine years ago”, has got the Tories “fretting”, he adds. 

“Both Johnson and Starmer have a great deal at stake in Batley and Spen,” writes Mark Wallace on the i news site.

“The former wants to keep his bandwagon rolling, to prove again that 2019 was far from the high water mark of the new Conservatism,” says Wallace, chief executive of the ConservativeHome website. And “the latter is increasingly desperate to show that not just that the rot in Labour’s foundations can be stopped, but that he is the man to do it”.

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