Labour is in a dreadful place – but is the Batley and Spen win a sign Starmer’s torrid time is settling?

In the normal course of politics, an opposition party holding a seat in a by-election is the most predictable of events: There’s only been five by-elections since the Second World War when this hasn’t happened.

That the Labour Party is so delighted and relieved to have – against the odds – clung onto Batley and Spen by just 323 votes, reveals a lot about the trouble the party and its leader are in.

The delight comes directly from the win here after a hugely painful by-election loss in Hartlepool.

As the victorious candidate Kim Leadbeater said as dawn broke over the constituency that she held for Labour: “A win’s a win.” And this is one that the party badly needed.

This was a divisive, acrimonious and difficult by-election in a constituency still scarred by the murder of Kim’s sister and former MP Jo Cox five years ago by a neo-Nazi.

The arrival of veteran campaigner and left-wing firebrand George Galloway in the constituency with the stated aim of denying Labour a victory further complicated the landscape for Labour as Mr Galloway’s Workers Party of Britain targeted the constituency’s Muslim community, by highlighting issues around Palestine and Kashmir. He came out with 8,264 votes.

And what of the relief? Those 323 votes are the difference between Sir Keir Starmer facing a leadership crisis on Friday morning in the shape of leading figures on the left calling for his resignation and having a chance to re-group (in a sign of those divisions, a local Labour figure in Batley and Spen told me today some local party members will now be expelled for openly campaigning for Mr Galloway here).

Politics is so often about momentum, and after a pasting in the Hartlepool, Chesham and Amersham and the local elections in England, Sir Keir Starmer finally has something he can call success.

But now to the reality: Labour is in a dreadful place.

It has been out of power for over a decade and now counts clinging on to seats it has held for decades (in this case since 1997) as a victory. As election analyst Michael Thrasher highlights, Labour’s vote share has fallen in the last 12 parliamentary by-elections.

As pollster James Johnson points out, aside from the Copeland and Hartlepool by-elections (Conservative wins) the 2.9% swing to the Tories in Batley and Spen is the biggest swing to a governing party in 39 years.

And it’s a crisis being felt on the ground. YouGov polling for Sky News this week revealed that just one in five party members believe Labour can win the next general election.

This win doesn’t resolve the fundamentals for Sir Keir: Labour’s red wall is crumbling while any red shoots spotted in old Tory shires – in Sussex and Surrey – could take decades to bloom. Scotland, which the party needs to dominate in order to have any hope of winning a general election, is SNP country now with Labour languishing in third place in the Holyrood elections and with just one out of 59 Scottish MPs.

And as for the leader, elected on a unity ticket, he is struggling to hold Labour’s fragile coalition together – one senior party figure told me this morning, “some of the left will be very disappointed about this result” – let alone appeal to voters who have turned away.

But are there seeds of other shifts in Batley and Spen’s result?

Labour insiders tell me the party picked up votes in Tory supporting wards, with Conservative voters angered by the Matt Hancock affair. The Lib Dem vote also fell by about 1,000, suggesting some tactical votes for Labour. Add this into the stunning Lib Dem victory in Chesham and Amersham and it leaves me asking two things: Are the sleaze scandals of Boris Johnson’s administration beginning to rub off? Is there a possible alliance of centre-ground liberal voters caught between polarising culture war issues that Mr Johnson’s Brexit-backing party likes to mine?

Those are some of the questions, but what those in Sir Keir’s team would say more definitively after Friday’s result is that the ‘win’ in Batley and Spen gives him a little bit of space and time to move beyond everyday crisis management over recent weeks.

This result gives Sir Keir an opportunity to define what he stands for, to worry less about party unity and more about making the party relevant to the public once more.

As one senior figure told me: “We’ve been given an opportunity and we’ve got to take it, to use the time from now in to party conference to get Keir out campaigning and setting out his vision.”

Those close to him also acknowledge that this by-election is a “reality check” that, despite winning as a unity candidate, “some people don’t want unity they want division” and part of defining himself as Labour leader in the coming months will be having those internal fights to show the public what type of Labour party his is.

This by-election win, coupled with the end of the pandemic (this phase at least) and difficult tax and spend decisions for the Tories on the horizon, gives Sir Keir an opportunity after a torrid time. Now we wait to see, can he convert it?

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