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2 July 2021

Keir Starmer has silenced his Labour critics – for now

The Labour leader’s allies are nothing short of jubilant after the party won against the odds in the Batley and Spen by-election.

By Ailbhe Rea

Labour has won the by-election in Batley and Spen by 323 votes.

The scores on the doors are:

Labour: 13,296 (35.3 per cent)
Conservative:12,973 (34.4 per cent)
Workers Party of Britain: 8,264 (21.9 per cent)
Liberal Democrat: 1,254 (3.3 per cent)

Keir Starmer’s allies are jubilant this morning, and his critics rather silent, after it was widely expected that Labour would lose the seat following a strong challenge from former MP George Galloway, and that Starmer could then face calls to resign. “The world’s worst plotters strike again,” remarks one Labour source. “They plot, we door-knock.” Another Labour source adds: “Turns out if you try and let George Galloway do your dirty work for you – it’ll certainly be dirty but it won’t work.” It is a comment supposedly directed at the Conservative campaign, but perhaps also alludes to MPs on the left on the party who have made no secret of their desire for the leader to go.

[Hear more on the New Statesman podcast]

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This is, of course, a significant personal victory for the constituency’s new MP, Kim Leadbeater, following a nasty and divisive campaign in the seat where her sister, Jo Cox, was murdered by a far-right terrorist. The people of Batley and Spen have “far more in common than that which divides us”, the late MP said in her maiden Commons speech, and her sister will see this result as proof that that remains true.  

But this result will be viewed less for its significance in Batley and Spen and more for its huge implications for the Labour Party at a national level. Keir Starmer is significantly strengthened by this narrow victory, not just against calls from the left to go, but in the ongoing power struggle between him and his deputy, Angela Rayner. Her allies were keen to point out in the run-up to the Batley result that a defeat this time couldn’t be blamed on her, unlike Hartlepool. But now that Labour has won in Batley and Spen, Starmer’s allies are briefing that the leader has been vindicated in his decision to sack his deputy as national campaign chair and replace her with Shabana Mahmood. “The reshuffle was messy but brutally effective,” says one. “We’d have lost without her.”  Starmer’s allies are also taking the opportunity to defend some of the old guard in the leader’s office, Jenny Chapman and Morgan McSweeney, two of his closest advisers who have come in for particular criticism from MPs and who were moved to new roles only a few weeks ago.

Mahmood is being singled out for praise this morning, and not only from those keen to make an implicit comparison with Rayner. As I reported earlier in the week, she and her deputy, Connor McGinn, have been credited with turning things around at the top of the Labour Party in recent weeks, restoring a ruthlessness and discipline to operations. Mahmood has also, I understand, begun to organise one-to-one feedback sessions with MPs on the recent local and by-elections, which is being widely welcomed by some, even in the shadow cabinet, who haven’t had much contact with the leader’s office since Starmer became leader. 

That gives some indication of the mood of cautious optimism among MPs this morning. They are elated by the surprise victory, but their concerns and resentments haven’t gone away overnight. Keir Starmer has some way to go before he wins back the confidence of his MPs. But, strengthened by this result, they have cause to believe things are starting to go in the right direction.

[see also: Labour’s victory in Batley and Spen shows the party is learning how to fight back]

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