Three words summarise the Batley and Spen by-election: Labour. Fought. Back. Confronted by George Galloway, reborn as an anti-woke campaigner exploiting homophobia, Labour activists faced down the intimidation and the threats his campaign inspired and turned the imagery against him.
They learned – both in the Muslim community and the tight-knit white working-class villages that form the seat – to go beyond “get-out-the-vote” (GOTV) and engage in deep, persuasive conversations.
Faced with a vitriolic WhatsApp environment – where the lies of the far right, Galloway and the Tories formed a toxic stew – Labour activists created their own messaging networks in the community, hitting back with their own memes, narratives and Gifs. Forced into infowars, they learned how to conduct them.
Labour held the seat with a 323-vote majority through sheer endeavour, not luck. Its candidate, Kim Leadbeater, the sister of the late Jo Cox, proved a major asset. Derided by the alt-left media for her hazy grasp of policy, she is, in fact what many working-class Labour voters think of as an ideal MP: an ordinary local person who knows what people are angry about, speaks and looks like them, and can be trusted to represent them at Westminster.
But the masterminds of the slim victory were Holly Lynch MP, who ran the local operation, and Labour’s new national campaign coordinator, Shabana Mahmood MP, who showed strategic intelligence in crafting the messages that, eventually, put Galloway on the back foot and turned traditional Labour voters out in droves on the day.
It’s become fashionable to say – because it’s strategically correct – that Labour needs to move beyond GOTV. But GOTV has helped put Ms Leadbeater on the morning train to London on Monday. Labour’s organisers and seasoned activists, bussed in from across the north, showed they are good at it. If so, that’s partly a legacy of Jeremy Corbyn’s five years in charge, and should be acknowledged.
Where does the result leave Starmer? Had Labour lost Batley, I have no doubt there would have been a leadership challenge.
The centre left believe the right are planning major party-rule changes to stack the odds in their favour if Starmer fails at the next general election. It is logical for the left to go early, even if the Socialist Campaign Group (SCG) could not muster the numbers for a candidate. Hence the push by trade unions and left MPs for Angela Rayner to launch a challenge, and for the SCG to fold in behind her.
That now looks unlikely. But there will be change. Mahmood, together with Ed Miliband and Lucy Powell, sat on Labour Together’s 2019 general election inquiry. The three form the nucleus of a group within the shadow cabinet that wants effective control of messaging and campaigns put in the hands of party HQ and for Starmer’s underpowered office to start producing policies rather than organisational gaffes and political blunders.
But the great gaps in Labourism remain strategy, policy and narrative. If the strategy is to win back the Red Wall – and the acquiescence of the pro-Brexit Heavy Woollen Independent vote in Batley suggests that may be possible – then with what policies, what language, what story and vision for the future?
The evidence of Batley suggests voters were more prepared to trust a fitness coach from round the corner on these issues than they were Starmer himself.
Finally, the desertion of the Muslim vote to Galloway represents what could become a major strategic threat to Labour, if it is allowed to. The party is trapped between two visceral phenomena – socially conservative reactions to LGBT education (known colloquially as “the gay system”) and anger at Labour’s insipid language over Palestine.
Galloway’s vote of 8,264 was driven by a mixture of the youthful radicalism that put tens of thousands of young Muslims on the streets during the latest Gaza atrocities and the homophobia and anti-feminism of some among the older generation.
Mahmood’s counter-offensive in Batley, fronted by female Muslim MPs and activists, showed that you can contain this threat if you do the right thing. Once Galloway’s key lieutenant, Shammy Cheema, was outed as a Holocaust denier (a charge that Cheema denies), I am told community leaders began to panic about the reputational damage Galloway was causing.
But doing the right thing has to mean finding stronger words of condemnation for Israel’s actions against the Palestinians. The climate of fear inside the party itself, with suspensions and takeovers of branches, has to stop. The Labour whip should be returned to Jeremy Corbyn.
The biggest losers this morning are the Putin and Assad supporters – the far-left activists and amateur journalists who joined the pile-on against Leadbeater in the hope that Galloway would finish off Starmer – with some even fantasising that he could win. They fostered the narrative that Galloway’s right-wing populism and war-crimes apologism were, in fact, a progressive revolt and framed all criticism of his thugs as “Islamophobia”. And they failed.
Batley and Spen is a poverty-blighted working-class community, preyed on first by Brexiteers and now the ghoul of Eastern Ghouta. It deserved a decent, local, working-class MP who just wants to make things better. Now it’s got one.