Chance of holding Batley and Spen as low as 5%, say key Labour figures

Party throws its weight behind Kim Leadbeater as Keir Starmer’s team fear backbench revolt if she loses

Senior Labour figures believe the party has only a 5% to 10% chance of holding the West Yorkshire seat of Batley and Spen in Thursday’s byelection, as Keir Starmer’s team brace themselves for a backbench revolt if the Tories take the seat.

The constituency formerly held by the murdered MP Jo Cox is being contested for Labour by her sister, Kim Leadbeater, in a contest marred by allegations of dirty tricks and intimidation.

Leadbeater, who lives locally, has been chased and heckled on the campaign trail. The Jo Cox Foundation issued a statement on Tuesday expressing concern about the impact of intimidation on public figures.

“Addressing this intimidatory and abusive culture matters. It matters for the diversity of our public life, it matters for the way in which the public can engage with representative democracy, and it matters for the safety and emotional wellbeing of the people it affects. We can and must debate our differences passionately, but not at the price of legitimising violence,” the foundation said.

Labour has poured resources into Batley and Spen in recent weeks, with scores of MPs descending on the constituency to knock on doors after the race was triggered by sitting MP Tracy Brabin winning the West Yorkshire mayoralty.

Former Labour MP and Russia Today presenter George Galloway is standing as an independent, under the banner of the Workers Party, claiming the race is a referendum on Starmer’s leadership.

Labour party strategists have played down the party’s hopes of a win on Tuesday, increasingly fearing that Galloway will attract enough votes to allow the Conservatives to scrape home.

One MP who has been canvassing in the area said: “At the beginning, I would have said it was not like Hartlepool. Now, I’ve changed my mind – I think we’re going to lose it.”

Labour sources pointed out the Tories could have won the West Yorkshire seat in the December 2019 general election had it not been for the Brexit party and a candidate for the Heavy Woollen District Independents taking more than 8,000 votes between them.

Nevertheless, another defeat after Hartlepool – and after the Liberal Democrats snatched Chesham and Amersham from the Conservatives despite the “vaccine bounce” – would be greeted with horror by Labour MPs in potentially vulnerable red wall seats.

vote share chart

“Everyone will be watching Batley and Spen,” said one backbencher, who said a poor result for Labour could suggest “there’s potentially another 20-50 seats across the north that we are going to lose”.

They warned that fear could prompt a “kamikaze” attempt on Starmer’s leadership – though it is unclear whether any candidate could gather the 40 signatures necessary to trigger a contest.

Several MPs said Angela Rayner was the only MP who could attract the necessary names – but her allies denied reports that she could launch a challenge, attributing them to, “men in suits going around claiming to speak for Angela, when she’s more than capable of speaking for herself.”

Despairing backbenchers said they will be watching Starmer’s response on Friday closely, with many grumbling that it remains unclear what Labour’s distinctive message to the electorate is.

But the shadow sports minister, Alison McGovern, who was a friend of Jo Cox and has worked with Leadbeater on the Jo Cox Foundation, rejected the idea a poor result would be a blow for Starmer personally.

“If we manage to pull off a miracle then it will be because of Kim: she’s just a great person,” she said, adding, “whatever happens, of course we have got to argue for Keir to be the prime minister, and we have got to argue for Labour to be the government: that’s on us. But that’s not because of a byelection, it’s due to having lost in 2019 and really needing to win.”

Starmer has already shaken up his team since Labour lost last month’s Hartlepool byelection, with key figures including political director Jenny Chapman departing.

Lady Chapman is being replaced by Luke Sullivan, a longtime party official who knows Labour MPs well after a long stint at the side of former chief whip Nick Brown. More senior appointments are expected to be announced in the coming days.

Former Starmer aide Simon Fletcher, a well-respected party veteran who also worked for Jeremy Corbyn and Ed Miliband, used a New Statesman article on Tuesday to urge the party to “avoid creating the impression that it has fallen into a pit of self-loathing”.

Starmer’s team said he will host a series of town hall-style meetings across the country in the run-up to Labour’s September conference. But Fletcher warned against another “listening exercise”.

“What if the issue is in fact that what people want to hear is that Labour stands for something with conviction?” he wrote. “If Labour is not to be left permanently stranded in opposition, it must now be bolder and leave people in no doubt about its intentions.”


Heather Stewart Political editor

The GuardianTramp

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