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2 July 2021

The many reasons to be delighted by the Batley and Spen by-election result

The Conservatives didn’t deserve to win and George Galloway certainly didn’t – but Labour’s brave Kim Leadbeater absolutely did.  

By Jonn Elledge

So, it’s over. After weeks in which politics has been focused entirely on one corner of West Yorkshire, and on exactly what opinion there meant for the future of the Labour Party/the leadership of Keir Starmer/George Galloway’s hat – after weeks in which the entire Westminster bubble has been so obsessed with this What This Seat Tells Us About Labour’s Troubles that they entirely managed to miss a 25-point swing against the Tories in Chesham and Amershamthe Batley and Spen by-election is over.

[Hear more on the New Statesman podcast]

And, after much wailing and gnashing of teeth, Kim Leadbeater, the sister of its late MP Jo Cox, held the seat for Labour, albeit with a much-reduced majority of 323 votes. It’s a good result. Here’s why.

The Tories didn’t win 

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OK, an obvious one to start off with, I know, but let’s not take it for granted. The Tories have been winning rather a lot these past few years. They were expected to win here: the bookies had it as all but a certainty, with Labour on 6/1. 

But the Tories lost. The underdog won.

The Tories didn’t deserve to win

OK, leaving aside that, from where I’m standing, the Tories never deserve to win, they haven’t exactly fought for this, have they? This government has done an absolutely appalling job of running the UK during the pandemic: repeatedly locking down too late, offering financial support too weak to keep households afloat or to convince people to self-isolate, keeping the door open to new Covid variants even as it banged on about the importance of controlling our borders, allowing Dido Harding to remain employed… This country has not had a good pandemic. 

Given all that, you’d think they might be fighting for every vote. They were not. The Tory candidate, Ryan Stephenson, kept his head down in the hope George Galloway would do his dirty work for him.

And so, for both national and local reasons, the Tories deserved to lose here. Which they did. Good.

[see also: Anoosh Chakelian on the Batley and Spen campaign]

George Galloway really didn’t deserve to win 

Oh come on, he’s awful isn’t he? He has worked for broadcasters controlled by the Russian and Iranian states. He supported the Brexit Party in the 2019 European elections. The voice. The hat. An election leaflet which, in the context of homophobic attacks on LGBT education, declared: “I will demand parental involvement in the school curriculum. I don’t want my children to be taught in a moral vacuum.” The “accusations of aggression and intimidatory tactics from Galloway’s campaign, which some say has fuelled anti-LGBTQ+ rhetoric against activists” (according to a Guardian campaign report).

For all that, he came third, and it’s only upsetting that he got as many votes as he did. 

George Galloway has said he will challenge the result in court 

No, I don’t know what grounds he thinks he has either, but I’m looking forward to finding out, and I confidently predict that this is going to be hilarious.

A narrow Labour victory means there is a chance we will be spared the Labour forever war discourse that was previously set to dominate the summer 

A narrow Labour victory, after all, tells us neither that Starmer’s critics are wrong and that everything is fine, nor that his leadership is so hopeless he must be binned immediately. It’s not clear what discourse we would even have.

I’m not saying that there is a good chance we will be spared it. But it is at least a chance.

The best woman won

Come on, look at the candidates here. Galloway is awful. Stephenson seemed to avoid making any gaffes, but also seemed to avoid making the slightest impact on public consciousness.

Leadbeater has been genuinely impressive. She’s campaigned with quiet dignity, refusing to engage Galloway on his own terms. Her statement when polls closed was so humble that it was, wrongly, read by some as an admission of defeat. 

And last week, she was filmed being screamed at in the street because of her support for gay rights. That video went viral because she didn’t lose control, or respond in kind, but she did, firmly, tell the man screaming at her that he had no right to speak to her like that and she didn’t owe him an answer. 

At the risk of saying something without cynicism for once: she seems like she might make a decent MP? The right candidate won.

Now that the Hartlepool and Batley and Spen by-elections have delivered such completely different results, London-based commentators will stop treating the north as if it’s a single, undifferentiated and quite possibly slightly racist mess

Nah, I’m just kidding, of course we’re never gonna do that.

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