The Batley and Spen byelection will reveal the depth of Labour’s predicament | Jane Green
A lot rides on Batley and Spen. Labour will be desperate to buck its recent trend of poor electoral form against the Conservatives. If it can’t, the depth of its predicament will be further highlighted. But even if it can,the party won’t be able to breathe a sigh of relief. Because Batley and Spen has a number of local factors that make it different to the national picture. Whilea defeat for Labour would be especially terrible, a win may not indicate the party has turned the tide in terms of its electoral hopes. These local factors also makes it a particularly difficult contest to call.
Labour’s national predicament can be summed up as a party caught in a pincer movement. On one side, Labour has been losing voters to the Conservatives, who united the leave vote behind them. The Brexit party stood in Labour-held seats in 2019. We then saw the impact of the collapse in the Brexit party in the Hartlepool byelection, where a Brexit party to Conservative swing proved instrumental and notionally placed further red wall seats in play in a general election. On the remain and left side, Labour is losing voters in England to the Liberal Democrats and the Greens. A Liberal Democrat recovery can place Labour seats in jeopardy in Labour-Conservative marginals, siphoning off Labour votes – unless Liberal Democrats vote strategically for Labouragainst the Tories. This pincer movement is also in evidence in economic terms. At the constituency level, Labour lost more voters in 2019 in areas of higher deprivation. The Liberal Democrats made their greatest gains in areas higher in affluence.
There is potential for the pincer movement threat in Batley and Spen. The Liberal Democrats got 17.2% of the vote there in 2010, and in the 2015 general election 18% of Batley and Spen voters opted for Ukip. Nationally, there is little switching between the Liberal Democrats and Ukip: British Election Study data shows that fewer than 10% of 2010 Lib Dem voters hadflipped to Ukip by 2015. This meansit is likely that these two different groups of voters could be decisive: if the Liberal Democrats take votes from Labour, and former Ukip voters go to the Conservatives, we could see another Conservative gain.
However, we should bear in mind that Batley and Spen isn’t Hartlepool. There isn’t nearly as much leave vote available. The estimated leave vote in Hartlepool was 70%; in Batley and Spen it was 60%. The 2019 Brexit party vote was 26% in Hartlepool, the 2015 Ukip share in Batley and Spen was 18%. There are more ethnic minorities in Batley and Spen, which may benefit Labour, more homeowners, which may benefit the Conservatives, and marginally fewer unemployed people and levels of deprivation. The Brexit divide has shaken up the relationship between economics and party support. The pandemic means these groups of voters may feel economically insecure and more likely to vote Labour, or not vote at all.
There are also unique factors and unknowns in Batley and Spen that could work in Labour’s favour. The clearest is the tragic murder of its MP until 2016, Jo Cox. That her sister (Kim Leadbeater) is standing could mean people unite behind her in solidarity. Batley and Spen hasn’t seen the gradual decay in Labour vote seen across other Labour strongholds, although this could mean there is now even greater potential for an electoral upset.
A key unknown is the destination of voters who opted for the Heavy Woollen District Independents in 2019, who are not standing in the byelection. Named after the Heavy Woollen District textile industry in Yorkshire, with the aim of electing local independents, they got 12.2% of the vote in December 2019, driven by a strong local representation message and pro-Brexit leadership – their leader stood there for Ukip in 2015. Their decision not to stand in this byelection throws up two possibilities. The first, that these voters are primarily motivated by Brexit: good news for the Conservatives. The second is that these voters are driven by a desire for more local representation. There is ample competition in Batley and Spen for the votes of people who would rather vote for a local independent voice or minor party – 13, including Ukip and George Galloway for the Workers party. Nationally, votes for “others” (independent candidates and local parties) are driven by ideology and also by a sense of disillusionment – a feeling by voters that politicians don’t care what people like them think. However, since Leadbeater is also a long-term local resident and community advocate, and not a seasoned politician (only joining the Labour party very recently), she could potentially win over many of these voters.
The last unknown in Batley and Spen follows last week’s surprise result in Chesham and Amersham. There, where the Liberal Democrats were in second place and no doubt helped by local factors, Ed Davey’s party’s recovery was in full throttle. Batley and Spen is now a test of what happens in a Labour-Conservative contest in the absence of a formal progressive alliance between Labour and the Liberal Democrats. Without it, Leadbeater is fighting an uphill battle.
There are, then, uncertainties and specific local factors at play in this Batley and Spen byelection. Because of this, a win by Labour would not mean Labour has cause to relax about other red wall constituencies, particularly those that have more in common with Hartlepool than with Batley and Spen. A loss, however, would mean that even with a local candidate with high profile and potentially strong community appeal, and even in a seat with Batley and Spen’s local history, Labour’s national electoral predicament could be worse than we thought.