Batley and Spen By-Election: Labour set to lose another brick in their crumbling Red Wall

This article first appeared at on 4th June 2021

At the last English by-election, Boris Johnson’s Conservatives won the Hartlepool constituency for the first time. A stunning result that defied history and laid stark the demographic trends that now explain our politics.

A fortnight today, the Tories are rated 94% likely to defend Chesham and Amershampreviewed here – at odds of [1.06]. A fortnight later, on July 1, they are strong favourites to complete the hat-trick by securing the most impressive win of all.

Hartlepool was initially billed as the most exciting by-election in decades but Batley and Spen even better fits that description. There are as many known unknowns, while the two parties main were more or less tied at the local elections. Plus this constituency has a grim, famous backstory, which will continue to play out during the campaign.

2016 still casts a shadow over this seat

Labour MP Jo Cox was murdered by a far-right terrorist during the EU referendum of 2016. Thomas Mair shouted ‘Britain First’ as he killed her. The party of that name is represented here by leader Jayda Franzen. Cox’s sister, Kim Leadbetter, is the Labour candidate.

Following Cox’s death, former actress Tracy Brabin took the seat in a by-election, helped by the main opposition parties standing aside. She defended it easily by 17% in 2017 but, by the 2019 General Election, Brabin’s margin fell to 6.7%. Were it not for the Heavy Woollen District Independents scoring 12.2%, taking mostly Brexit voters, she might have lost.

This will be closer than Hartlepool

Those numbers are reminiscent of Hartlepool, but there are important differences. Batley and Spen includes a much higher share of non-white voters, particularly Muslim, who lean strongly Labour. The share of Leave voters here is 60%, compared to 70% in Hartlepool. Even if we define those independents, led by a former UKIP councillor, as a Brexit-alternative to the Tories, their share added to the Brexit Party is still 10% lower.

Logically on recent trends, therefore, the Tories will not get close to their 23% margin of victory in Hartlepool. Ben Houchen’s extraordinary defence of the Tees Valley Mayoralty, scoring 73%, signalled Tory dominance in the region. It was much closer here. Virtually tied according to this extrapolation.

Nevertheless, the history of the seat bodes well for their current incarnation. The Tories won as recently in 1992 and regularly overperformed their national share during the opposition years. A constant problem was inability to unite the right-wing vote. Instead the BNP scored 7% twice, then at the 2015 election, UKIP scored 18%.

United Right looks very hard to beat

As we have seen, Johnson has expanded the Tory base to these far-right alternatives. Their vote share in both polls and real elections has become solid and consistent. Labour’s appeal to Brexit voters in England – 60% of this constituency – has disintegrated and there is no rival on the right to the Tories.

Meanwhile in contrast, non-Tories remain fundamentally split. Keir Starmer’s leadership has not only failed to cut through with the extras Labour would need to ever form a government again, but also with the young that form their base and the Left of the party that still supports Jeremy Corbyn.

Galloway presence to hurt Labour

As usual, these voter groups will also peel off to the Lib Dems and Greens. George Galloway’s Workers Party will also doubtless take a few could-be Labour supporters – simultaneously courting the Muslim vote, as he always does, while unleashing similar attack lines against Labour, on identity, as the far right.

Culture wars will dominate this race. Batley Grammar School is a hot topic, after protests forced a teacher to be suspended, then reinstated, for showing pupils an image of the Prophet Mohammed, from the Charlie Hebdo cartoons. Such focus is liable to entrench the cultural dividing lines that explain England nowadays, and further damage Labour.

Some will argue that having Leadbetter on the ticket will help. I’m sceptical. The Cox murder may have shocked the nation, but there’s no evidence it affected the referendum result, either in the constituency or beyond. We’ve seen numerous far-right terrorist incidents in recent years, whether here or abroad. None seemed to move the needle.

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