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Keir Starmer Has Swerved A Leadership Challenge After Labour Cling Onto Batley and Spen

6 min read

An unexpected victory for Labour in the Batley and Spen by-election will come as a welcome relief for Keir Starmer, whose leadership of the party was once again thrown into question this week when the race tightened in favour of the Conservatives.

In the end the party clung to the seat with a majority of just 323, and Kim Leadbeater was elected as the new Labour MP for the West Yorkshire constituency.

After losing the rock-solid "red wall" stronghold of Hartlepool to the Tories in May, it was predicted that a second by-election defeat in as many months could prove fatal for Starmer’s leadership.

“Everyone’s been calling this a referendum on Keir’s leadership,” a spokesperson for the leader’s office said following Labour's Batley victory.

“Well we’ve won – bucked the trend, held onto this marginal seat and advanced in Tory areas. A fantastic result".

A shadow minister said a change in leadership was out of the question and predicted the victory, which defied expectations and polling, would be a pivotal moment for Starmer as he tries to get Labour back on track.

“The fightback starts here,” they told PoliticsHome this morning.

“Sometimes the significance of by-election results gets exaggerated but I genuinely believe historians will look back at this as the turning point. This is the moment”. 

Starmer, who is now heading up to West Yorkshire to celebrate with Leadbeater, said the result "was just the start".

But even as odds of Labour holding the seat diminished steadily over the last week, the leader had stood firm and insisted he would not be standing down, regardless of the outcome in Batley.

“Keir has been absolutely clear that this is a four-year path to get back into power and he is determined to lead the party into the next general election,” his spokesperson said on Wednesday. 

Despite swirling speculation over possible challengers to Starmer’s leadership throughout this week, in private, Labour MPs and officials believed it was unlikely a leadership challenge was truly in the offing anytime soon, thanks to a combination of poor timing and the fact that neither the right nor left of the party are coalescing round a single candidate.

Deputy Leader Angela Rayner and Shadow Foreign Secretary Lisa Nandy have both been hotly tipped as future leadership candidates, but the expectation among the Parliamentary party is that both will now support Starmer through what is set to be a crucial summer - but potentially go for the job later down the line.

The consensus among Labour MPs prior to Friday's result was that neither Rayner nor Nandy would have launched a leadership challenge even if the party had lost in West Yorkshire.

“People in the Shadow Cabinet are starting to maneuver, but not for Friday morning – more like for some time in the future,” said one Labour MP and former shadow frontbencher.

“Nobody who is serious about running is going to want to go for Keir now”.

A serving shadow minister said: “It [a leadership challenge] would be such a crass thing to do at this time of national crisis".Rayner is popular within the party, and secured the support of 88 MPs for her campaign to be deputy leader, but it was uncertain whether she could marshal the 40 votes needed to trigger a contest for the top job.

It is also unclear whether she even wants it at this stage. After The Times reported that her allies were preparing a challenge, Rayner tweeted that the story was “news to me”. Her spokesperson insisted that anybody drumming up support “is not doing it under instructions from Angela or with Angela’s backing”.

Nandy, who ran against Starmer for the leadership in 2020, is also a popular figure. She has been frank about the need for change in Labour, telling the Evening Standard recently that the party “lost our way in the last few years”.

But she has already ruled herself out of any new contest. “I still have nightmares about the last time,” she said. 

A poll for Sky News this week found seven in 10 Labour members believe Greater Manchester mayor Andy Burnham would make a better leader than Starmer. But the “King of the North” has already thrown his support behind Starmer and insisted he won’t be pursuing party leadership imminently.

“I get asked it relentlessly: would I ever go back? So the answer is, I would, but it’s not any time soon,” Burnham told the New Statesman.

MPs on the Labour left who belong to the Socialist Campaign Group were seen as the most likely source of a leadership challenge.

However, even before the shock Labour win in Batley and Spen they didn't have support they need for a candidate to challenge Starmer: the backing of 40 Labour MPs.

“Frankly, the left hasn’t got a candidate,” said one of the more moderate Labour MPs. “Who have they got who has got any credibility at all?”

There was some speculation that former shadow Cabinet minister Dawn Butler could be put forward after taking a film crew with her to campaign in Batley and Spen, but she slapped down that plan.

"I never have been, and never will be, part of a coup against a Labour leader and have no interest in standing against Keir,” she told the Sunday Telegraph.

An MP elected at the last election said they struggled to see any candidate from any wing of the party having the backing of 40 MPs to trigger a leadership contest at the moment.

“So in that case, what's the point?” they said.

The MP believed the pandemic had made it hard for any new message under Starmer to cut through at a time when the party needed to win over the public more than ever.

“What's going to make us look even less relevant than having a leadership contest and turning inwards for three months or so while we do that?,” they added. 

Starmer will head into the summer with boosted confidence and more time and space reboot his leadership. He has already made big changes to his senior team in recent weeks.

One MP said Labour’s need for change was greater than simply switching out the top brass.

“If you just change the leader, anything that's wrong in the party, whether it's governance, whether it's campaigning, whatever – putting some new bloke in at the top, because of course it's always a bloke, isn’t going to magically reverse everything,” they told PoliticsHome.

“I think we need to get away from this thing about ‘who is the leader’ to ‘how they lead’ instead”.

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