The constituency of Batley and Spen will be the most important place in the UK for Keir Starmer over the next three months. But to those in the West Yorkshire seat – and site of a major byelection and test of the Labour party this summer – he is far from their minds, or a total unknown.
“I’ll be honest with you, I don’t know who he is,” said Saqib Hamshi, 28, a gym-owner midway through a skin fade haircut at Palace Barbers in the town of Batley. “I knew Jeremy Corbyn but I’ve not heard much from the new leader.”
The sentiment was shared by a number of people, including Mitch Moxall, 86: “I had no faith in Corbyn but the new guy is a complete and utter waste of time. He says he’ll take full responsibility but how is getting rid of his assistant [Rayner] taking full responsibility, for crying out loud?”
On Sunday, Batley and Spen’s Labour MP, Tracy Brabin, won the inaugural West Yorkshire mayoralty, meaning she must stand down as Batley and Spen’s MP. The date of the byelection is undecided but is pencilled in for 22 July, a month after the fifth anniversary of the murder of Jo Cox, Brabin’s predecessor who was killed by a rightwing terrorist.
The vote is particularly high-stakes after Labour lost the byelection in Hartlepool last week, , meaning the north-east constituency turned blue for the first time in half a century. Unlike many so-called red wall seats, the Tories have been competitive in Batley and Spen in living memory – holding the seat until 1997 – albeit at a time when the area’s demographics looked very different.
Almost one in three adults in Batley and Spen are economically inactive – far higher than Britain’s average of 21%. For those who are in work, residents take home about £130 a week less than the full-time average for Britain. Moreover, 20% of the constituency’s population is of Asian heritage – more than double the UK average of 6.9%.
Those factors make it a much more unpredictable byelection than Hartlepool, which many expected to fall to the Conservatives despite its six-decade allegiance to Labour.
Despite her election win, Brabin is not universally popular in the area, with some feeling she was more interested in photo opportunities than being a good representative.
“She spent more time in Barnet than Batley,” says Caroline Holt, a Covid community officer and a presiding officer in the recent local elections. “Boris came up last month trying to get people vaccinated but I don’t expect we’ll see Sir Keir Starmer any time soon.”
Labour’s candidate is expected to be shortlisted in the coming weeks and chosen by a vote of local members, a reversion to the standard procedure after an outcry by some members after Hartlepool’s Paul Williams was selected without a vote due to the snap byelection.
Labour chiefs are debating whether to hold the contest in mid-June – the earliest opportunity but also close to the government’s deadline for full unlocking, which they fear could give the Conservatives a boost – or later in the summer.
Lisa Johnson, the GMB’s external relations director who is seen as a key Labour power player, had been tipped for the seat but said she was not interested. Other contenders could be Salma Arif, a Leeds council cabinet member covering health, and Habiban Zaman, a Batley East councillor.
Alpha Sangura, 42, a student support social worker said the sacking of Rayner had concerned him because Starmer “needs to keep Labour together”. “I’m Labour through and through but the current situation makes me sad. I don’t want to leave [the party] but I might have to vote Green if things get worse.”