There have been four byelections in the UK in a matter of months. What do the races and results tell us about the challenges and chances facing Keir Starmer and Labour?
The first real electoral test of Starmer’s premiership came in May. An unexpected contest was called when the incumbent Labour MP Mike Hill quit due to a sexual harassment inquiry and northern Tories were gleeful at the chance to extend their march into “red wall” territory.
Though Hartlepool had always voted Labour, it came close to flipping Conservative before and backed leave in the 2016 referendum by 69.6%. And when Paul Williams, a former MP and ardent remainer, was picked as Labour’s candidate, morale sunk lower among some in the party. He lost the byelection with 28.7% of votes. The lack of a Brexit party candidate partly helped unify the rightwing vote, projecting the Conservative candidate Jill Mortimer into the Commons.
Hartlepool’s large white working-class population was emblematic of the sort of seat Keir Starmer had set out to gain – or at least hold – in the long trudge back towards a parliamentary majority. He spent months trying to coax voters who abandoned Labour in 2019, trying to reestablish the party as one that was more patriotic and attuned to the public on cultural issues.
The byelection was also partly a test of how much voters had moved on from the leave and remain faultlines. The elections expert Prof John Curtice said that although more than a year had passed since the UK left the EU, the issue remained salient to some voters – and was partly why Labour was “crucified” in Hartlepool. “If you think you can keep stumm about Brexit without people voting on it, think again,” he said, calling Labour’s attempt to do so “not particularly effective”.
Curtice also said that as a former lawyer, Starmer was used to speaking to a brief someone else had written. “A political leader has to write their own brief, and he has yet to demonstrate he’s got an ability to do that,” Curtice said. “Harrying the government on competence only gets you so far. People won’t think the Labour party has got enough vision unless they start setting out some broader policy positions.”
Airdrie and Shotts
Labour’s first byelection test in Scotland came a week later, when the SNP MP Neil Gray stood down to join the Scottish parliament. Airdrie and Shotts, a safe turned marginal seat that Labour came within 200 votes of retaking in 2017, was not just a test for Starmer but also for the new Scottish Labour leader, Anas Sarwar. Labour, having just lost two Holyrood seats, had clearly failed to make the quick comeback it was hoping for.
Gray’s successor was the SNP’s Anum Qaisar-Javed, who took 46.4% of the vote to the Labour candidate’s 38.4%. But an increase in vote share of 6.5 percentage points from last time led Sarwar to declare “Labour is back on the pitch”.
The contest largely went unnoticed, however, due to the Scottish parliament elections the previous week. It was also the sort of staple constituency Labour need to recapture if they are to have a strong chance of refortifying their base in Scotland, as Airdrie and Shotts used to be when it was represented by a former Scottish secretary and home secretary. It remains a substantial challenge for the party to swing the constituency red.
Chesham and Amersham
It was the Conservatives’ turn for a political upset when one of the most “true blue” seats in England switched allegiances. While Labour had tussled with the Lib Dems for second place for decades, there was no close fight this time.
The byelection was called when the sitting Tory MP Dame Cheryl Gillan died. A relatively straightforward campaign was expected by most but as polling day drew nearer, confidence grew among the Lib Dems that they were in with a chance. When the Lib Dem leader, Ed Davey, made a victory speech, he brought a yellow hammer to demolish the wall of hastily assembled blue boxes to celebrate the win of Sarah Green.
Labour plummeted to fourth place and lost its deposit with just 1.6% of the vote. The party put little effort in, much to the appreciation of the Lib Dems.
A completely different set of factors were at play here: HS2, planned to run through the rural Buckinghamshire constituency, and the prime minister’s controversial planning reforms. Some Conservatives also feared the government’s focus on “levelling up” other parts of the country would mean less investment for their own areas and felt voters in more liberal, affluent seats were less enamoured with Johnson as a leader.
But Labour’s performance still raised questions for Starmer. While the party’s success in big cities was solidified at the local elections a month earlier, he faces the challenge of capturing the disaffected middle classes in more rural seats who are increasingly put off by Johnson’s moral and social policy stances. Labour’s relatively invisible presence at the byelection may also encourage them to all but stand aside for the Lib Dems in other seats where they think their chances of defeating the Conservatives are significantly lower.
Martin Baxter, the founder of Electoral Calculus, said the Conservatives had done “very well” at consolidating the centre-right vote, but the centre-left remained “divided” and therefore would probably win fewer seats at the next general election.
Batley and Spen
Of the byelections so far, this was the one Labour faced most internal criticism for. When the sitting MP, Tracy Brabin, quit to become the West Yorkshire mayor, some party figures wondered why Brabin was not discouraged harder from changing roles.
The candidate picked was Kim Leadbeater, sister of the seat’s murdered MP Jo Cox. She faced a significant struggle when George Galloway declared his intention to run. In a seat with a large Muslim population, Galloway sought to exploit Labour’s stance on Palestine and make the vote a referendum on the party’s leader, with banners declaring “Starmer out”. Labour managed to hold the seats by just 323 votes, with the Conservatives narrowly coming second and Galloway third with 21.9%.
The result threw into focus the challenge Starmer may face attracting Muslim voters – a particularly poignant issue given the possible next byelections that Labour could face. Robert Hayward, a Tory peer and polling expert, said Galloway’s campaign was “primarily aimed at ethnic minorities” and presented itself as an alternative to Labour and the Tories.
He said the Conservatives “had the best opportunity they were going to get” but the Covid vaccine rollout bounce appeared to be waning and voters’ attention was turning to other matters. Labour still had “big issues” nationally but the greatest lesson they could learn from Leadbeater’s performance was to “pick a well-liked, local candidate and you have the opportunity to sell a message”.