Leadbeater’s slim byelection win offers sweet relief for Starmer

Analysis: ominous chatter over a possible Labour leadership bid will stop abruptly – for now at least

Labour MPs who have campaigned hard for Kim Leadbeater in Batley and Spen over recent days say her narrow 323 vote victory in Thursday’s byelection is very much hers.

A committed local activist who has worked to bring her local community together since her MP sister, Jo Cox, was murdered there by extremists in 2016, she dealt calmly and resolutely with the rigours of a nasty campaign.

Indeed, party strategists believe it was partly the public’s revulsion at unsettling images of Leadbeater being heckled that helped bring voters out to support her, even from traditionally Conservative areas of the seat.

Even on Thursday, Labour MPs contacted by the Guardian as they poured into Batley for a get-out-the vote drive in the sunshine remained pessimistic, so her narrow victory came as a sweet relief.

Had Leadbeater lost, however, such is the brutal nature of Westminster politics that it would have been read by many backbench MPs not as her personal defeat, but Keir Starmer’s.

The Labour leader has come under consistent friendly fire in recent weeks for failing to offer a convincingly clear message about what the party stands for, or to narrow Boris Johnson’s poll lead despite a string of revelations about sleaze.

Many MPs have privately been offering gloomy prognostications in recent days about the dire state of their party, and some were preparing to urge colleagues to launch a leadership challenge.

Keir Starmer popularity

There were even suggestions Labour could come third, behind George Galloway – way wide of the mark in the event, since Leadbeater took 13,296 votes, her Conservative rival Ryan Stephenson 12,973 and Galloway 8,264.

So febrile was the mood in recent days that even Starmer’s deputy, Angela Rayner, was being mooted as a candidate, and was forced to deny any knowledge of plans for a leadership bid on Thursday – though she did not quite rule out launching one.

Rayner was regarded by many on the left of the party as the only person likely to win over the 40 MPs necessary to launch a bid; but there were also ominous rumblings from more centrist MPs about how long Starmer could viably last had Labour lost Batley and Spen.

All that chatter will now stop abruptly, at least for the time being. MPs and party members are likely to feel Starmer has earned himself the benefit of the doubt – though his new leadership team know he has a hard road ahead to Labour’s autumn conference.

Leadbeater’s narrow victory, turning the seat into a super-marginal, suggests the electoral tide may still be moving against Labour – Tracy Brabin’s majority in the 2019 general election was more than 3,500.

The fact that Galloway was able to convince 8,000 voters to support him by playing on Starmer’s alleged neglect of the Muslim community is also likely to stoke fears that Labour is alienating once-loyal groups of voters.

But Starmer now has a clear run to get on with what he has been promising his party he is ready to do: get out to the voters and convince them Labour would improve their lives, and he would make a better prime minister than Johnson.

And, meanwhile, Labour MPs who still feel keenly the loss of their friend Jo Cox will be able to welcome her sister into Cox’s old seat on the green benches of the House of Commons.

Contributor

Heather Stewart Political editor

The GuardianTramp

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