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Slow Views • Primary Sources

A by-election with a bite

Friday 2 July 2021

Labour’s triumph in Batley and Spen may have been narrow – but it could prove seriously consequential. George Galloway was seen off, and Boris Johnson’s run of success was finally ended

Kim Leadbeater, victory speech, 2 July 2021

I want to say a huge thank you to the police who sadly I have needed more than ever over the last few weeks. And I want to say a huge thank you to the whole Labour party team for the hours and the time and the commitment they have put in to help me get to this fantastic result this evening. Well done for keeping up, everybody.

What a sad juxtaposition. What a sorry commentary on the divisive nature of British politics that the first sentence in a victory should have to offer thanks to the police. This is not the usual perfunctory nod to the returning officer. This is thanks for police protection against intimidation by a candidate whose sister was murdered by a right-wing fanatic when she was herself the MP in their home constituency of Batley and Spen. 

In this by-election all the divisions of recent vintage coalesced. There was the Brexit division – the Tories expected that the absence of a candidate from the Brexit party and a former UKIP member running under the banner of the Heavy Woollen District Independents meant they were likely to win.

There was the vicious Labour division as Corbynites of varying fame and distinction hoped a defeat might provoke the fall of Keir Starmer. And then, on top of all that, there was the divider-in-chief George Galloway who brought his special toxic brew to a constituency with a large Muslim minority. 

Galloway’s nasty campaign fuelled religious division with an unpalatable side helping of homophobia and sexism. It was a dreadful few weeks and Leadbeatter’s calm remarks do enough to suggest she has clearly had enough for the moment. 

In an earlier statement just after the polls closed, she had said that the campaign had been ruined by “some unacceptable lows. The acts of intimidation and violence by some who have come here with the sole aim of sowing division have been deeply upsetting to witness”. Well done for keeping up everybody, indeed.

There are way too many people to mention by name but I do want to refer to my family and my friends who, without them, I could not have got through the last five years, never mind the last five weeks. My amazing parents and my wonderful partner. And I want to give a special shout out to my niece and nephew, who I cannot wait to hug as soon as I see them.

The temptation to mention Jo Cox by name must have been strong but perhaps the pain is too raw. On the page, the first sentence here looks flat and routine. On hearing, it was anything but. Leadbeater’s voice cracked when she said the word “family”; one can imagine the thought that passed through her head, speaking as a successor to her sister as the MP for the place where they both grew up.

But Jo’s name was there by implication, when Ms Leadbeater referred to the troubles of the last five years. So too was her partner, celebrated but unidentified. This, again, revealed a lot in the concealment.

The anti-Labour campaigners from the Left have been pushing hard on the fact that Ms Leadbeater’s partner is a woman, trying their best to stoke prejudice against her. Who knows how far the tactic worked? Mercifully, not far enough to win the seat.

One final important fact about this passage is that the people all mentioned are from Batley and Spen. Kim Leadbeater was a good candidate with impeccable local credentials and, in a very tight contest, this was one of the factors that won her the seat. As one voter put it nicely last week: “Yes, I’ll vote for Kim, but that doesn’t mean I’ll be supporting Labour”.

The focus now is on catching up on a bit of sleep, maybe having a few glasses of fizz, and then there is lots to do, and I think the campaign has highlighted that there is lots to do, but I am going to crack on with it. And I will do my very best to represent the whole of Batley and Spen as their new MP. I am absolutely delighted that the people of Batley and Spen have rejected division and they have voted for hope. Thank you very much everybody.

Make no mistake about the scale of this victory. This is a big win for the Labour party. It will go down in the record books as “Labour hold Batley and Spen” – but it’s a much bigger deal than that. 

Batley and Spen should join Orpington 1962, Hamilton 1967 and Bermondsey 1983 in the annals of great by-election victories. The reason for that is that it is the first interruption of the tidal flow towards Boris Johnson’s Conservative party. 

The Tories expected to gather the pro-Brexit vote, as they had in Hartlepool, and that alone should have given them the seat. Add to that the fact that Galloway won 22 per cent of the vote, largely taken from the Labour side. All in all, Batley and Spen really did look unpromising for Ms Leadbater. A couple of weeks ago senior figures in Labour had all but given up. 

It is too early to declare this as a definite turning point, but it absolutely ends the silly chatter about Keir Starmer’s leadership. It also shows that there are voters in the north of England, perhaps some of the more affluent parts of Batley and Spen, that really do not like the cut of the modern Conservative party. This short speech might have been the relatively flat end to a nasty campaign – but it might also be the start of something.