Keir Starmer has hailed Labour’s new MP in Batley and Spen as the future of the party and contrasted her decency and spirit with a prime minister “who basks in his own dishonesty”.
Lauding a narrow victory in the West Yorkshire byelection as “a turning point” in the fight against divisive politics, the Labour leader said Kim Leadbeater was an exemplar of the more community-based approach he wants the party to pursue.
Writing for the Guardian, Starmer praised Leadbeater – a political novice whose 323-vote victory means she takes over the seat formerly represented by her sister, Jo Cox – for having fought a campaign based on “unity and decency”.
“We want to bring the country together, not push communities apart,” wrote Starmer, whose leadership was potentially under threat if Labour had failed to hold the seat. “Nobody embodies that spirit more clearly than Kim.”
Visiting Batley earlier, Starmer claimed “Labour is coming home”, a slogan first used by Tony Blair at the party’s 1996 conference, coinciding with the Euro 96 song.
While much of the focus of an often rancorous byelection campaign fell on George Galloway, who stood with the explicit aim of splitting the Labour vote, Starmer sought to contrast the values of Leadbeater with what he termed the “manipulation, half truths and non-truths” of Boris Johnson.
Leadbeater, whose sister was the MP from 2015 until her murder by a far-right extremist in 2016, confounded expectations of another Labour byelection loss by taking 13,296 votes against 12,973 for the Tory candidate, Ryan Stephenson. Galloway, under the banner of his Workers Party of Britain, came third with 8,264 votes.
While the result is a significant relief for Starmer and his team – Angela Rayner, his deputy, was forced to deny reports she could challenge him if the party lost – it again highlighted long-term structural woes faced by Labour. The winning margin fell to less than a tenth of Labour’s 3,525 majority in the 2019 election.
Johnson, asked about the byelection during a press conference with the German chancellor, Angela Merkel, shrugged off the result, saying Stephenson “did very well to reduce a longstanding Labour majority several decades old”.
While some senior Labour figures have been keen to dismiss talk of a leadership challenge to Starmer as largely the turf of disgruntled backbenchers and excitable aides, it was nonetheless a symbolically important moment for Starmer after Labour resoundingly lost the Hartlepool byelection to the Conservatives in May, before winning just 622 votes amid a surge to the Liberal Democrats in Chesham and Amersham.
Starmer, who has just shaken up his backroom staff, plans to spend the summer setting out a vision for the party amid criticism that he has yet to fully outline what he stands for.
Writing in the Guardian, Starmer praised the way Leadbeater was a well-known figure in her community, greeted with warmth despite a sometimes “toxic atmosphere” in the byelection which saw her, at one point, heckled and pursued down the street.
Such behaviour, Starmer wrote, meant Batley and Spen was “so much more” than a normal byelection. “The values of Kim’s campaign won through – decency, honesty and integrity. Those are the values that define the Labour party that I lead,” he said.
Faith in politics as a force for good had been damaged, Starmer added: “And why wouldn’t it, when we have a prime minister who basks in his own dishonesty, when cabinet ministers can do what they like without any threat of being sacked, and when a government operates on the basis that it’s one rule for them, and one rule for everyone else?”
He wrote: “This byelection is a turning point, a sign that the politics of division and dishonesty won’t win out, that unity and decency can.”