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25 June 2021

Batley and Spen is no Hartlepool – but Labour is still in trouble

Whether Labour loses the constituency or not, every activist I spoke to is just longing for the contest to be over.

By Ben Walker

For campaigners in a key election such as Batley and Spen, it helps to know who your voters are. Activists need to know where supporters live, to knock on their doors and campaign for as much support as possible for polling day.

Labour campaigners call this process “doing a board”. You scramble together some activists and knock on the doors of would-be voters, people who – according to your list – are either supporters who have already committed to Labour or are likely to be convinced to vote for the party. 

Data intelligence is crucial to modern campaigning. If you don’t have that data – perhaps because previous canvassers failed to record the local constituency data correctly – the risk is that you waste time campaigning at the doors of supporters of other parties, or voters who are actively anti-Labour. 

With only days to go, according to activists on the ground, it appears that the Batley and Spen Labour campaign has been running the risk of doing just that.

During one board, an activist reported finding no data on how people in the neighbourhood voted at the last local election, or the last general election, or even some elections before that. It was a neighbourhood in a what used to be considered a safe Labour ward. The last time some of the households on that board had been canvassed door to door was in 2014.

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“We’ve never had your lot come here before,” came the rather disgruntled words of one resident.

***

The Hartlepool by-election, held in May, was a disaster for Labour. They underperformed compared to what the polls had projected, and lost decisively in every electoral ward except for one. Their supporters were unenthused, and previous assumptions that the Brexit Party electoral base wouldn’t transfer to votes for the Conservative Party were proven wrong.

Batley and Spen – similar to Hartlepool –  is a northern constituency, which voted Leave, and at one stage courted representations from Ukip. It is unsurprising that these similarities have sparked predictions of an all-but-certain defeat for Labour.

But on closer look, the factors at play in Batley and Spen are very different from those in Hartlepool, and these distinctions can be read with both hope and despair by this very beleaguered Labour outfit.

How Batley and Spen residents have voted since 2015
Local and general election results for the wards which make up the Batley and Spen parliamentary constituency

One big factor is Labour’s candidate, Kim Leadbeater. Born in the constituency, all indications from activists and residents when approached suggest she’s has been positively received as a candidate. Unlike Keir Starmer, who’s appears to be a nonentity to people in the area, and Jeremy Corbyn, who was a negative entity, Leadbeater keeps votes.

I shadowed one Labour activist doing a board who let me hear this claim put to the test. A gentlemen they canvassed, when pushed on his vote, responded accordingly.

“Yes I’ll vote for Kim,” he said, “but that doesn’t mean I’ll be supporting Labour!”

Then there is the locale’s economic and demographic profile (and its geographic profile, too: visitors should prepare for some breathless hill-walking). Batley and the Spenborough valley is more interconnected with the wider region than Hartlepool was. More of its residents travel further and for longer to get to work than those who live in Hartlepool.

[See also: How a Conservative win over Labour in Batley and Spen would set a new postwar record]

A more travelled and commuter-based populace often makes for a less communitarian and identarian outlook. In elections defined by identity politics, that might just matter.

Not only that, but Batley – which has 9,000 more voters than Hartlepool overall  – has 12,000 more residents of a working age. When in-work Britons of low- and medium-sized incomes voted for Labour, not the Tories, at the 2019 election, this could prove key. 

Batley and Spen also boasts some sizeable Asian communities – something Hartlepool does not. Local election results show that unlike much of the white population in England that voted for Leave in 2016, Britain’s Asian community did, at least in the local elections in May, stay loyal to Labour. 

Taking a look at turnout data, too, shows that wards with an above average number of Asian voters in the north of England were more prone to turning out at the ballot box than the neighbouring  wards with a larger white population.

Voter turnout in Asian heavy wards in the North of England was marginally higher than their whiter counterparts at LE2021
2021 local election turnout by ward

***

On the data-points alone, Batley should be a better fight for Labour than Hartlepool. Even the Conservative campaigners I spoke to conceded the race was tighter than Hartlepool.

But then there is the George Galloway factor. 

Galloway, the former Labour MP who has set himself up as a rival on the far left, is a problem for Labour. Much of his campaign material, which Galloway is aiming specifically at the constituency’s Asian (in particular, Muslim) community, focuses on how the result of this by-election could bring down Starmer’s leadership.

Visit Heckmondwike, west of Batley, and the campaign posters give the impression that the locale votes anything but Labour (in May, the area voted Labour 45 per cent, Conservatives 42 per cent). This is a ward with a high number of Asian voters, and tarpaulins bearing images of the fedora-topped Galloway are commonplace. Stake-boards for Leadbeater and Labour are few and far-between. Similar to Hartlepool and much of England, enthusiasm for Labour here appears low.

The Labour campaigners concede they’re in a tricky position. Leadbeater is a net positive. Voters know her. They like her. The local factor matters, they say. But it’s not enough. Their worry is not falling third, as some outlets report, but losing their base altogether. Labour needs to turn out its Asian supporters to keep the seat, and the likelihood of that happening feels low, especially given how the campaign has been turned dirty by Galloway.

How dirty are we talking? When Galloway stood in Bradford West in 2012 his supporters were accused of assaulting a Jewish journalist. In Batley, video footage has been released of supporters of Galloway chasing Leadbeater over her support for “LGBT indoctrination”. This, done by the backers of a candidate who claims to be more left than Labour.

Batley and Spen is no Hartlepool. The demographic and economic profile makes Thursday’s by-election a tighter fight. But the apparent success of Galloway in appealing to disenchanted electors has shaken things up.

To every activist I spoke to, there was universal agreement the campaign has turned nasty, and Labour loss or not, they’re just longing for it to be over.

[See also: Will Labour lose the Batley and Spen by-election?]