Labour “is coming home” after the party narrowly held on to Batley and Spen in a sometimes brutal byelection, Keir Starmer has said, arguing that voters were starting to see through the government’s “politics of misinformation”.
“It is a start. Labour is back. Labour is coming home,” the party leader told cheering activists in the West Yorkshire constituency, standing next to Kim Leadbeater, who won the seat over the Conservatives by just 323 votes.
Leadbeater, the sister of Jo Cox, who represented the seat from 2015 until her murder by a far-right extremist in 2016, took 13,296 votes, against 12,973 for the Tory candidate, Ryan Stephenson
George Galloway, who stood under the banner of his Workers Party of Britain with the explicit aim of splitting the Labour vote and destabilising Starmer’s leadership, came third with 8,264 votes.
Speaking to activists and the media in the constituency, Starmer condemned the abuse Leadbeater had faced during the campaign, saying others had “poisoned it with hatred, division, disinformation, lies, harassment, threats and intimidation”.
While much of his message was aimed at Galloway, Starmer condemned the Conservatives for believing “they could sit back, say nothing about harassment, and walk in. And they were wrong about that.”
Speaking to Sky News, Starmer sought to more explicitly link a “victory of hope over division and decency over hatred” to the government, saying a number of Tory voters had switched to Labour.
Asked if the result was affected by the resignation of Matt Hancock for breaching Covid rules during an affair with an aide, Starmer said: “I think people are getting fed up with the politics of misinformation, half-truths, untruths and division.”
The result, which Labour had feared would not go its way, was declared at about 5.25am on Friday after two “bundle checks” – not a full recount, but where the piles of votes are flicked through for irregularities. The result eases the pressure on Starmer, after a humiliating defeat in Hartlepool in May.
Leadbeater, 45, said she was “absolutely delighted that the people of Batley and Spen have rejected division and they’ve voted for hope”. In a short victory speech, she thanked her family and friends, saying “without them I could not have got through the last five years, never mind the last five weeks”.
She singled out the children of her sister, who was killed while doing the job she had just been elected to do. “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,” she said.
She also thanked the police, whom she said “sadly I have needed more than ever” during the campaign, which she said had highlighted how much work there was to do in the constituency.
Speaking later on BBC Breakfast on Friday morning, Leadbeater acknowledged the bitterness of the campaign, during which she needed police protection at times.
“Sadly there has been some nastiness during this byelection, and there are some divisions that need to be healed, but I think if anyone can achieve that, I can,” she said.
Labour activists said they were pelted with eggs and kicked in the head on the campaign trail at the weekend. West Yorkshire police said an 18-year-old man from Batley was arrested on suspicion of assault in connection with an attack on canvassers.
Labour was defending a slender majority of 3,525 votes in a seat it has held since 1997. The byelection was called after the previous MP Tracy Brabin was elected as the first mayor of West Yorkshire.
Turnout was 47.61%, down from 66.5% at the 2019 general election, although byelections generally record fewer voters. In May’s byelection in Hartlepool, turnout was 42.55%.
The demographic picture in Batley and Spen is more diverse than in Hartlepool. About 20% of the population is of south Asian heritage. A poll released this month by the Labour Muslim Network said that while Muslim voters traditionally backed Labour, support for the party was waning, as were Starmer’s personal ratings.
A senior Labour source called it “a fantastic result”, adding: “Everyone’s been calling this a referendum on Keir’s leadership. Well we’ve won – bucked the trend, held on to this marginal seat and advanced in Tory areas.”
Brendan Cox, the widower of Jo Cox, tweeted: “We are all incredibly proud of #kimleadbeater today and Jo would have been too. While the result between the two main parties was close the extremists & haters were left trailing. The people of Batley & Spen have voted for decency and positivity once again.”
There were 16 candidates on the ballot, including several far-right candidates.
George Galloway, who came third in the contest, said he would apply to have the result set aside by the courts.
• This article was amended on 2 July 2021 to correct Kim Leadbeater’s age from 44 to 45.