Batley isn't Hartlepool 2.0 — but it's another uphill struggle for Keir Starmer
Labour is bracing itself for another symbolic defeat in the north of England but Batley & Spen is shaping up to be far from your average by-election.
Batley, a town of rugby league and Victorian mills, will be the obsession of Westminster this summer when it elects an MP to replace Labour's Tracy Brabin, the new mayor of West Yorkshire.
The date of the Batley & Spen by-election is yet to be confirmed but it is expected to take place in late July. This gives Keir Starmer just a few months to get over the disappointment of the crushing Hartlepool loss and stop Boris Johnson wrestling another "heartlands" seat from Labour's grasp.
Conservative MP are bullish about the prospect of pulling off another symbolic victory in the north of England. A Tory MP based elsewhere in Yorkshire said the party ought to give under-pressure Starmer "a bloody nose" at the very least.
A senior Labour source who PoliticsHome spoke to this week was pessimistic about their chances of keeping hold of Batley & Spen. Its majority is a modest 3,525 and analysis of last month's local elections by The Times indicated a 17-point swing towards the Tories across the seat's six wards.
“It’s going to be really, really tough, by which I mean we will probably lose," they said.
“The reality is there is no policy offer, there is nothing we can suggest, that can match up to the vaccine rollout and the country reopening from the lockdown. That is what we are up against.”
Senior politicians have already started descending on the valley. Anneliese Dodds, the new chair of the Labour Party, quietly paid a visit to the steep streets of Batley on Wednesday to do some door knocking. Amanda Milling, co-chair of the Conservatives, showed her face last week.
Batley & Spen, which voted to leave the European Union by around 60% in 2016, has some of the hallmarks of a seat which makes the modern day Labour Party tremble with nerves.
The impressive old mills scattered around the town serve as reminders of its past life as a 19th-century textiles powerhouse. Nowadays, the town centre "has a run-down feel about it," says Jon Humpleby, community manager at Batley Bulldogs rugby club. "When I was at school I remember Batley having a Woolworths and all of your typical high street stores, and now there are just none."
But this summer's by-election is not Hartlepool 2.0 — far from it.
Batley & Spen's ethnic minority population is at around 22%, compared to Hartlepool's 2%. It did vote for Brexit five years ago but the Leave vote in Hartlepool was around 10% larger. And while both are lumped together as "Red Wall" seats, Batley & Spen was controlled by the Conservatives as recently as 1997, whereas Hartlepool turned blue for the first time ever last month.
As explained by elections analyst Professor Will Jennings: “Hartlepool was absolutely prime territory for the 2021 Conservative party. But Batley & Spen is a subtly different demographic and unlike Hartlepool it is not the perfect representation of the electorate Labour is really struggling with at the moment".Local Labour activists believe the outcome could hinge on a handful of key characters.
The first is local campaigner Kim Leadbeater, who is the heavy favourite to be selected as Labour's candidate in Batley & Spen this weekend. Ryan Stephenson, a councillor in the nearby city of Leeds, has already been chosen to stand for the Conservatives.
Leadbeater is the sister of Jo Cox, the former Labour MP for Batley & Spen who was murdered on the streets of her consistuency by a far-right terrorist in 2016. She is an ambassador for the Jo Cox foundation set up in her sister's memory and is heavily involved in local voluntary work.
Leadbeater is "well-known and well-liked" and has a lot of local support, said Humpleby.
But there are questions among local Labour activists over just how Labour Leadbeater actually is.
Announcing her candidacy — the only person to do so up to now — Leadbeater said she had "never really seen myself as a political animal". The Local Democracy Reporting Service reported that she had only joined Labour a few weeks before officially throwing her hat in the ring.
However, even suspicious local Labour activists say she would be the strongest possible candidate in what is shaping up to be another tough by-election for the besieged party.
The reality is there is no policy offer, there is nothing we can suggest, that can match up to the vaccine rollout and the country reopening from the lockdown. That is what we are up against
This is partly because they believe her candidacy would make it more difficult for the Conservatives to run a campaign based on "cultural" issues like free speech and patriotism. These have been major talking points in Batley after a local teacher was suspended in March for showing pupils a cartoon of the Prophet Mohammed, prompting days of protests outside the school.
"If Kim's chosen they [the Conservatives] will have to change strategy. They won't be able to run a dirty campaign," said one local Labour activist.
Conservative MPs in the region told PoliticsHome that the campaign should stay away from cultural issues and focus instead on the government's plan to pump money into areas like Batley & Spen — a tactic which paid dividends for Prime Minister Boris Johnson in Hartlepool last month.
Stephenson on Wednesday said his campaign would be about investment and focus on "quality sustainable jobs, apprenticeships and the investment the area needs".However, if Leadbeater is Labour's ace in the pack, then George Galloway is their nightmare hand.
The controversial former MP and hard-left commentator recently announced that his Workers Party GB would contest the Batley & Spen by-election and has not ruled out standing as its candidate.
Local Labour activists fear Galloway, who is known amony many things for being vehemently pro-Palestine, would give the Conservatives a vital helping hand by splitting the Labour vote. They say the recent violence in Gaza is a "massive issue" for the seat's significant Muslim population and that Galloway's stance on the conflict would win votes that otherwise would have gone to Labour.
"We have a fairly good chance of holding if Galloway doesn't stand," one activist told PoliticsHome.
"If he does, you can wave the seat goodbye."
The third name on the lips of campaigners on the ground, albeit to a lesser extend, is Paul Halloran, who could prove to be a bit of a headache for the Conservatives.
Halloran, a well-known local figure, won 6,432 votes (12.2%) as a pro-Brexit, independent candidate at the 2019 general election and is currently mulling standing again. He told PoliticsHome on Wednesday that he intended to make an announcement by the weekend.
Halloran identifies as a "small-c conservative" and prides himself on tackling issues that other politicians "shy away from". He told PoliticsHome that if he does stand this summer's by-election, he would run on a manifesto of putting freedom of speech "on the agenda" following the cartoon incident in March, sorting out the "politicised police," and tackling the local "crime epidemic".
"My premise is that I am a local guy who doesn't like what's going on around here and I want to stand up and do something about it," he said.
There had even been speculation that he would run for the Conservatives but the party has not approached him about being their candidate in Batley & Spen, Holloran said.
More ministers and shadow ministers will make for the rolling hills of West Yorkshire in the coming weeks as Johnson and Starmer prepare for another high-stakes by-election.
Victory for Starmer would be a huge boost and perhaps even a launchpad for rebooting his leadership. Defeat would spark more questions about whether he's the person for the job.