I am writing on the morning after another by-election in a so-called Red Wall seat. Keir Starmer will be enjoying his muesli more than he perhaps expected as Labour managed to hold on in Batley and Spen in what sounds like a fairly depressing contest.
This is without a doubt a better result than losing the seat, and much better than many expected, even allowing for the usual tiresome expectations management game played by all the parties, low turnout and the presence of George Galloway, an unpleasant and toxic politician but nevertheless one that on the whole I’m glad we have around.
The Tories are going to have to do some thinking aren’t they. Not all Northern seats are the same and Labour might, just might, have reached a nadir in 2019. I’m not at all sure it has, but if it’s a straight fight with Labour then they have lots more hard yards to pick up more voters as well as to hold on to what they’ve got. Their way forward probably lies more in the fact that they aren’t the Labour Party and mobilising voters who have tended to stay at home (by far the biggest section of the electorate). Their share of the vote fell from 36.0% to 34.4% which is a poor show given what was expected over recent weeks.
As for Labour, well as I say this is definitely better than losing, but it’s hardly a resounding vote of confidence in Keir Starmer either. As I said here following Hartlepool a few weeks ago, he has a job holding his ragtag party of obsessives together. At Hartlepool we saw a fairly straightforward fight between Labour and Conservative, with Labour having held on for so long largely as a result of UKIP and then the Brexit Party dividing the opposition. That dynamic also played out in Batley and Spen (to a lesser extent) but there was a sectarian element with Galloway making a seemingly successful attempt to pick up large numbers of (mainly) Asian voters. Labour’s share fell from 42.7% in 2019 to 35.3% last night, and this makes it rather difficult to read. Galloway may or may not have helped Labour but in the long term I know that the first time voting against Labour is the most difficult, and after that you’ve broken the habit.
A short word on George Galloway: he’s an interesting character, resembling more a preacher than a politician. I’ve got no time at all for his politics, he has cosied up to all sorts of horrible dictators in the past, and he has an instinct for sectarian politics which I think is what we saw in this by election. It’s ugly, but I suspect Galloway coming to town is a symptom of something pretty rotten rather than its cause. I do like his up and at ‘em style: he doesn’t take any crap from journalists and at least he points to things that resonate with large parts of the population. We should have more politicians who wouldn’t get past the first round in an interview for a nice job in an NGO.
Labour still has a big issue given the makeup of its support across the country: the traditional working class (who rightly feel forgotten), large numbers of Muslims (socially extremely conservative who in some parts of the country seem to be mobilised on the basis of events in Gaza and Kashmir), identitarian twenty somethings in the universities who focus on issues of sexual identity, Black communities (many of whom are pretty socially conservative Christians) and a largely Remain voting, secure and extremely wealthy block of graduates in gentrified London and the university towns. The Tories in many ways have a simpler story to tell and have historically had better coalition building instincts. Labour’s coalition is largely an accident of history and now that it is being examined it is in danger of falling apart. I expect continuing bust ups, fall outs, bad feeling and sniping in Labour; nobody does it better than the comrades.
Personally, this by-election represented something of a first in that I called it right: with George Galloway in the mix and the revelations about the ridiculous Matt Hancock over the weekend, the narrative of the Tories romping to an easy victory up north never felt very convincing to me. Anyway, I stuck a tenner on Labour to win and got an Indian take away sized profit! Go me, perhaps sticking with political betting is the main lesson I should learn!