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2 July 2021

Labour held Batley and Spen against the odds by attracting new voters

Faced with George Galloway’s advance among traditional Labour supporters, the party attracted new converts to compensate.

By Ben Walker

A narrow Labour hold in urban West Yorkshire is not a result typically received with breathless gasps of relief by the party leadership. But for Keir Starmer and those desperate for party unity, it is without doubt a victory snatched from the jaws of defeat.

On our respective visits to Batley and Spen, my colleague Anoosh Chakelian and I remarked that Kim Leadbeater, the Labour candidate, was an unquestionable asset to the campaign. She appealed to voters and her literature was markedly less Labour-centric in branding than previous efforts by the party, and one wonders if this proved key to the final result.

When approached on his preference, for instance, one resident remarked last week to a canvasser: “Yes, I’ll vote for Kim, but that doesn’t mean I’ll be supporting Labour!”

The party’s slashed majority of 323 votes over the Conservatives makes this a marginal seat – one that warranted two bundle recounts last night. Labour’s majority has been reduced from 6.7 per cent in 2019 to just 0.9 per cent. This, however, is a better result for Labour than that in the May local elections, when Conservative candidates won by 0.3 per cent across the constituency.

Labour hold Batley and Spen against the odds
Election results for the Batley and Spen parliamentary constituency

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As such, this is a seat in which Labour were already on the back foot. For the party to withstand an insurgent challenge by the fedora-clad George Galloway makes this win both a sweet sight for the party’s war-weary canvassers and a remarkable one psephologically.

In terms of demographics, this constituency was always going to be a tighter fight for the advancing Tories than Hartlepool, the seat the Conservatives gained in May. But Galloway’s presence led many to write off Labour’s chances. He has, after all, a history of attracting support from Britain’s Muslim community – a community increasingly important to the politics of Batley and Spen. That Labour retained the seat poses a question: where did its votes come from?

Galloway won 21.9 per cent of the vote while Labour’s share fell by 7.5 per cent. This suggests two things. The first is that Galloway’s vote was not exclusively composed of former Labour supporters and the second is that Labour gained support from elsewhere, without which its defeat would have been inevitable. 

According to ward level data (hat-tip to Rachel Wearmouth), it appears the party gained among some of the affluent and mobile Tory-leaning voters in the Spenborough valley – a group that is increasingly enamoured with Labour, and better concentrated in locales such as Trafford, Wycombe, Frodsham and Canterbury. They may be new voters, too, or former Conservatives, but shift they did. 

Voter identities are in flux, and tribal loyalties are fraying. Labour held Batley and Spen against the odds, seemingly by turning out new converts.

This article was amended on 4 July to reflect initial projections now confirmed.