Batley and Spen analysis: no general election blueprint for Keir Starmer, but there are lessons to take from the victory

Relief aside, Keir Starmer shouldn’t be celebrating too much after retaining Batley and Spen

Well, another by-election and another shocking result.

Many felt that Labour were sure to lose Batley and Spen to the Tories, and with it another brick in the so-called ‘Red Wall’. But, by the skin of their teeth, the party held on.

Sign up to our NationalWorld Today newsletter

The i newsletter cut through the noise

By the jubilant reaction from Labour leader Keir Starmer and many others within the party, you could be forgiven for mistaking what’s happened in Batley and Spen - barely retaining a once-safe seat with a slashed majority - with an historic victory.

Batley and Spen analysis: no general election blueprint for Keir Starmer, but there are lessons to take from the victory  (Photo by OLI SCARFF/AFP via Getty Images)
Batley and Spen analysis: no general election blueprint for Keir Starmer, but there are lessons to take from the victory (Photo by OLI SCARFF/AFP via Getty Images)

At the risk of attracting the ire of some of my Scottish colleagues, I can’t help but note the similarities between this and the reactions to the 0-0 draw Steve Clarke’s men secured at Wembley a couple of weeks ago. And we all know how that ended up.

So, the eternal question: what does this mean for Labour?

As ever, the reactions within Labourland to this latest development will split broadly along ideological lines.

Those on the centre and centre-right of the party will see it as a vindication of Starmer’s leadership - at least for now - and might, if anything, use it to try and further ostracise some on the left of the party.

They will highlight the arguably more-favourable terrain for the Tories in Batley and Spen compared with Hartlepool, and suggest that this victory so soon after that defeat shows Keir is making good progress.

Those on the centre-left and left of the party will say that a majority of 323 in an election against a 10-year incumbent government which has presided over one of the highest death tolls and largest economic hits from Covid of any country in the world, in a constituency which had a majority of almost 9,000 in 2017 and only dropped to around 3,500 during the party’s worst ever election defeat, is nothing to celebrate.

Both sides’ arguments will have merit.

But while the forever-war rages on, what happens next? A much-anticipated leadership challenge will not happen. There may even be consequences for those who are thought to have been plotting against the leader - whether the figures assumed to have been plotting were guilty of it, or were fitted up for political reasons, is worth considering.

And we are a long way from the next general election, but the result in Batley and Spen makes it much more likely that it will be Starmer who leads Labour into it.

If he does, there will be lessons to be drawn from this victory, however narrow. Kim Leadbeater has been almost universally feted as a very strong candidate, with genuine local ties and an understanding of the area.

Labour figures have been keen to stress the importance of the ground campaign too, particularly on voting day and the days leading up to it.

But this should not be seen as strong evidence that Starmer can win the next general election, nor does it provide an easily replicable blueprint for doing so.

Labour would struggle to find another candidate as emotionally and physically connected to a constituency as Leadbeater is Batley and Spen - she is also, by many accounts, an exceptionally energetic campaigner.

And while a strong ground-game has often been a key feature of Labour’s electoral strategy, its activist base is diminishing under Starmer’s leadership.

It’s worth remembering too that, in a general election, it is simply not possible to concentrate resources on a single seat as has happened in Batley and Spen, not least with dwindling membership fees and whisperings of withdrawal from a major union backer.

But there are the seeds of a strategy.

Labour will not win power by imposing uninterested career-politicians on communities it, and they, do not understand. Nor will it win without an energised base, prepared - as it was under Jeremy Corbyn - to put in the hours on-the-ground all over the country.

The answer then is to situate the Labour party and the work it does within communities. To build up strong links and scout out talented, passionate people in these communities who can be brought into the fold.

But Starmer will also have to start doing something he has failed to do so far as leader: effective party-management. It’s hard to think of another party which displays such clear disinterest in the opinions of its core voters than Labour under Starmer.

Of course, the party must speak to the people who don’t currently vote for it, but if only for the sake of its campaigning strength, it can’t do so at the expense of those who vote for it currently.