Ten First Thoughts on Batley and Spen

A week after Batley and Spen went to the polls Mark Perryman offers ten thoughts on Labour’s narrowest of victories.

1. In First Past The Post there’s no prize for coming second. However close, however specific the circumstances of the contest, Labour held Batley. A Tory win here would have been absolutely catastrophic for anything resembling a progressive, democratic politics. Rejoice! For now.

2. But not for long. The Tory vote held up, despite the Hancock saga.  Despite Amersham, there is absolutely no sign of a sufficient collapse in the Tory vote across the country to make them more than a tad worried about the next General Election. 

3. The Labour vote suffered the biggest % fall, -7.4% compared with the proportion of the vote that went to Tracey Brabin in 2019. That kind of result elsewhere would put another swath of Labour Red Wall seats at risk: more losses no gains.

4. In 2019, the big factor in Batley wasn’t the Brexit Party, who came a distant fifth, but a right wing, ex-UKIP, pro-Brexit independent, the ‘Heavy Woollens’. With a much reduced turnout in 2021, we don’t know where these votes went, but one thing is certain: they didn’t end up as Labour votes. If Labour loses votes in Red Wall seats where the Brexit Party vote in ’19 was high, and Brexit Party voters go to the Tories then Labour is in huge trouble. Batley gives us no reassurance this won’t happen.

5. The George Galloway Factor (i). Whatever anyone thinks of him, Galloway has two huge election victories on his record, both at Labour’s expense. Bethnal Green and Bow ’05 and Bradford West ’12. A dispassionate view would describe these as won from the left – in ’05 anti-war, in ’12 anti-Labour’s drift under Ed Miliband. But in Batley, he mixed justifiable anger over Palestine with a crude communalist politics, pro-Brexit and incorporating all manner of prejudiced views. He secured 21% of the vote. Again, on a low turnout it’s impossible to know where from, but with the Muslim vote in Batley reckoned to be 16%, the issue of Palestine doesn’t seem to be enough to account for all of his support. It’s a fair guess some, at least, came from socially conservative Brexit-voting Heavy Woollens voters, at the Tories’ expense – enough for Labour to squeeze home. Ironic, eh? Again, this should sober any thoughts after Batley of a Labour Red Wall recovery elsewhere. 

6.  The Galloway Factor (ii). It is easy (and right) to dismiss what Galloway has become: a rabble-rouser with little or no care for the consequences. But to heap all blame on Galloway would be a mistake. Labour is treating its metropolitan-university town voters and Red Wall voters as polar opposites, and imagining the Labour vote to be homogenous in each. Palestine proved this is not the case, and it absolutely isn’t the only issue that can cause this sort of cleavage.

7. In Hartlepool and Amersham the Northern Independence and Breakthrough parties received less than risible numbers of votes. In Batley, Galloway, standing for his Workers Party, did a whole lot better, but does anybody seriously suggest anybody but him could reproduce such a result elsewhere? All three of these parties have been set up for those exiting Starmer’s Labour to go elsewhere. The first two have proven forlorn failures; as for Galloway’s, anybody considering this a move left, good luck with that. Transforming Labourism was never going to be easy, and always a long haul. The only way to achieve that aim is in, and against.    

8. Without a huge ground war Labour wouldn’t have won in Batley. The low turnout (47% compared to 66% in ’19, or 37,786 compared to 52,927), much as it is regrettable, probably helped Labour. Its core vote held firm by enough of a margin to secure the slimmest of victories. But turnout will be much higher at a General Election, and there won’t be the army of Labour MPs acting as full-time campaigners for days on end, or local CLPs bussing in volunteers. Kim Leadbeater was clearly an outstanding, local, community-campaigning candidate. This is what the entire Labour Party needs to rebuild as – everywhere, but particularly in the Red Walls seats. Labour needs to be rooted in locality, community campaigning-focused, not just at elections, but year-round.  With an ever-decreasing membership and deep factional infighting within that membership, this is no easy prospect.   

9. During the Corbyn years, there was much talk of Labour’s ‘existential crisis’. Not Remainy enough for some, too Remainy for others. But Brexit was the symptom, not the cause, of a fracture in previously loyal voter blocs. The ‘Red Wall’ and ‘Blue Wall’  are shorthand for this.  Labour first took Batley in the ’97 landslide with 49%. By 2010 this had fallen to 41% – not as bad a fall as elsewhere, but still a fall.  In 2017 (the election that never gets mentioned), this had soared to 55% and Labour’s majority doubled to 8,961 – both a big improvement on ’97.  Then in 2019, the election that always gets mentioned, Labour was back to 42%, the increased majority halved too. Now Labour is on an all-time low of 35%. The lesson of ’17 in 2021? A bold, radical, economic policy message will attract both socially-conservative ex-Labour voters who will stomach a bit of identity politics in return, and socially-liberal (about-to-be if not already ex-Labour) voters who will stomach some wrapping in the flag in return. What Labour needs is neither a factional fight, nor Westminster-bubble leadership speculation, but a message and messaging that can deliver this. Without that, those precious 323 votes in Batley will be worthless. 

10.  Such a message and messaging is vital for any sort of Labour recovery, yet the harsh reality is that Batley and Spen has hardly changed anything – except silencing the leadership gossip, for now. Scotland lost for Labour and zilch recovery in the May Scottish Parliamentary elections, the Lib-Dems threatening Blue Wall gains in the South East, and a Green surge: none of this has changed. A scarcely-mentioned fact is that there was no Green Party candidate in Batley. This was no electoral pact – he was withdrawn at the last minute because of comments he’d made on social media. If the Greens had stood they would almost certainly have got more than enough votes to deprive Labour of their narrowest of wins and the Tories would be celebrating instead.  The message from Batley, Amersham, the 6 May locals and Scotland? Labour cannot win alone. Until it grasps this salient fact, defeat remains almost certain.     

Mark Perryman is the political education officer of Lewes CLP. His latest book, Corbynism from Below, is available here.