Has the Batley and Spen by-election saved Keir Starmer’s bacon?
Much-needed Labour victory pauses challenges to leadership - for now
Keir Starmer has lived to fight another day as Labour leader after the party clinched a close victory in the Batley and Spen by-election.
Allies of the embattled Labour boss had been braced for a leadership challenge by his deputy Angela Rayner, after her supporters were reportedly caught canvassing support among parliamentary colleagues and trade unions.
But Starmer appears to have got a reprieve following yesterday’s by-election win by Kim Leadbeater, a “committed local activist who has worked to bring her local community together since her MP sister, Jo Cox, was murdered there by extremists in 2016”, says The Guardian.
Following a “torrid year which has put a question mark over Starmer’s leadership”, the by-election victory has provided him with “some breathing space”, says Politico’s London Playbook.
“Everyone’s been calling this a referendum on Keir’s leadership,” a Labour source told the site. “Well, we’ve won - bucked the trend, held onto this marginal seat and advanced in Tory areas. A fantastic result.”
On the other hand, as The Telegraph’s political correspondent Tony Diver points out, “Leadbeater held on to Batley and Spen by the barest of margins - scraping ahead of the Conservatives by 323 votes”.
Leadbeater secured 13,296 votes, closely followed by Tory candidate Ryan Stephenson on 12,973, while political maverick George Galloway - who ran in an effort to “humiliate” Starmer by splitting the left-wing vote - came third with 8,264.
The result turns the West Yorkshire seat into a “super-marginal”, says The Guardian, and suggests that the “electoral tide may still be moving against Labour”.
The seat was previously held by Labour’s Tracy Brabin, who won a majority of more than 3,500 in the 2019 general election, before triggering the by-election by successfully standing to become West Yorkshire mayor this May.
‘Stave off the critics’
Leadbeater “now faces the task of working out where she fits into a complex and divided Labour Party”, says Diver in The Telegraph.
“While her election will stave off Sir Keir’s critics for some weeks”, Diver continues, Labour’s left-wing remains “hell-bent” on removing their current party leader and replacing him with a “Corbynite” candidate.
All the same, Starmer is “significantly strengthened” by the win, argues New Statesman political correspondent Alibhe Rea.
He still has “some way to go before he wins back the confidence of his MPs”, she says, but “they have cause to believe things are starting to go in the right direction”.
MPs and members to Starmer’s left “will doubtless point out that the Batley and Spen victory is narrow and hardly an indication that Labour under Starmer is at the gates of power”, writes Daniel Finkelstein in The Times. But Leadbeater’s victory “certainly blunts this attack” against Starmer following the party’s historic loss in Hartlepool in May.
Starmer now needs to get on “the front foot” and be “clearer about what his vision is for the country and what Labour stands for under his leadership”, says The Spectator’s political editor James Forsyth.
Whispers of a potential leadership challenge are still being heard, and a string of major unions “have signalled they would back” Rayner if she were to launch a bid for the top job despite her denials of any such plan, The Times reports.
“Concerns about the direction Starmer has taken the party over the past year” have been raised by the Transport Salaried Staffs’ Association, rail union Aslef and the Communication Workers Union, the paper continues. And “senior figures” at Unite, Labour’s biggest financial backer, “are also ready to support” Rayner.
However, a Labour source told The Times that “those attempting to piggyback on George Galloway’s poisonous campaign in Batley to trigger a hard-left coup against the elected leader of the Labour Party won’t be forgiven”.
“Angela needs to sort her allies out,” added another insider. “They’re making her look pathetic and our party a laughing stock.
“She has to get behind Keir, not sharpening the knife.”