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Who will win the Batley and Spen by-election?

This by-election is more winnable for Labour on paper, but mistakes that didn’t matter in Hartlepool may well matter in Batley.

By Stephen Bush

Tracy Brabin’s election as the West Yorkshire mayor means there will be a by-election in her Batley and Spen parliamentary seat, because the role of West Yorkshire mayor, which comprises mayor and police and crime commissioner, cannot be lawfully “double-jobbed” with the functions of an MP.

It sets up another by-election in a Labour seat that had a large third-placed vote for a pro-Brexit party in the 2019 election – albeit, in this case, represented by the Heavy Woollen Independents, one of a number of local Ukip parties to enjoy a fairly successful second life as independents following the Brexit vote.

While these parties had managed to survive until this set of elections, they have all struggled, and there is no sign that Batley and Spen will be all that different. The local elections showed a close fight between the Conservatives and Labour, superficially putting the contest on a knife-edge. Labour currently holds this seat with a majority of just 3,525. Given that come the by-election England will have completed its unlocking, it may be a seat where Labour’s position gets worse before it gets better.

However, one of the few things – perhaps the only thing – that the Labour campaign in Hartlepool can say it did right is squeeze the other parties of the centre and left down to their core votes. In elections that were very good for the Greens and not too bad for the Liberal Democrats across the rest of the UK, Labour confined the Greens (who did not stand in Hartlepool last time) to just 1.2 per cent of the vote and squeezed the Liberal Democrats to below even that.

If Labour can do the same again, and I see no reason why it should not, it ought to be able to hold Batley and Spen fairly comfortably.

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Added to that, of course, is that important date in everyone in England’s calendar: 21 June, when normal life and an end to coronavirus restrictions will come into being. Surely, this will boost the government’s standing yet further, but it also means Labour faces a choice: the party could, if it wished, hold the by-election on the last Thursday before the easing of restrictions, the earliest date it could legally hold the contest. (By-elections must have a minimum number of weeks after moving the writ, which the defending party does.)

Or Labour could opt to go long, reasoning that holding the by-election in late summer would give it the advantage of being able to campaign properly, and that the feel-good factor around reopening might have eased by late August. There are risks to both approaches: really the one date we can say with confidence Labour should avoid is the 24th June (the first Thursday after restrictions ease). And in my view it is better off risking that the advantages of a long campaign outweigh the drawbacks: not least because going the week before feels like an invitation to the government to bring the reopening forward a bit (which the clinical data suggests it could do).

There is an important “but” here, however, which is that the other part of the Hartlepool story was how badly Labour did literally at everything else in its control other than squeeze the other progressive parties down to their core voters. The party leadership imposed a poor candidate who looks to have done worse relative to his opponent than either the Hartlepool Labour Party on the council, than Jessie Joe Jacobs against Ben Houchen in the Tees Valley mayoral election, or the Labour candidate in the police and crime commissioner race.

Keir Starmer’s response to the local election results was to launch a reshuffle that has weakened rather than strengthened him. And, of course, that Labour’s success in squeezing the other parties of the centre and left down has gone unremarked is part of its poor political and media management following the local election results. 

While Labour starts in a better position structurally in Batley and Spen than Hartlepool, the political mistakes that were beside the point in the last by-election may be more important in this one.