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How Kim Leadbeater saved Labour from another by-election disaster

How Kim Leadbeater saved Labour from another by-election disaster
This wasn’t a Labour triumph; the party’s vote share dropped by 7.4 pour cent

It was a by-election that pollsters, bookies — and, Oui, even The Independent — suggested might be all but a Tory shoo-in.

Boris Johnson’s party was supposed to take the West Yorkshire seat of Batley and Spen jeudi, just as it had done in Hartlepool two months earlier.

Voters would, it was said, abandon La main d'oeuvre in droves, angry about international issues, local grievances and being taken for granted by a series of red-rose MPs dating back to 1997.

Even as late as 2am on Friday, rumours were doing the rounds at the counting hall that Labour’s candidate Kim Leadbeater might slip to third place.

Yet when the 16 runners and riders were finally called to the stage at Cathedral House in Huddersfield just before 5.30am, it was only Leadbeater clutching a small slip of paper: a victory speech.

The sister of murdered MP Jo Cox squeaked to victory over her Tory rival Ryan Stephenson by 13,296 votes to 12,973 — a margin of just 323. George Galloway, who some predicted would decimate the red vote, came third with 8,264.

How did this 45-year-old with no political experience snatch victory from the jaws of defeat?

The first thing to note is that it wasn’t a Labour triumph; the party’s vote share dropped by 7.4 pour cent.

The new majority is some 3,000 smaller than that left by Tracy Brabin, who stood down in May to become the new mayor of West Yorkshire.

Pertinently, the fact that Galloway was able to notch up almost 10,000 votes – many of believed to be from working class Muslims – indicates a vital part of Labour’s historical electoral base may be moving away from the party.

Yet in one of the most toxic by-elections in recent memory, just getting over the line will be viewed as an achievement.

“Why did she win?” ponders Afzal Khan, the Gorton Labour MP who spent much time campaigning in the constituency. “Because she was an excellent candidate, bags of energy, inspirational. Voters just liked her. She has a long track record of working for this community and that’s what voters want to see.”

Many here on Friday morning were just pleased the election was over.

Accusations of intimidation, violence and criminal damage have marred the the campaign. Labour activists have reported being egged, insulted and threatened by Galloway supporters. They accused him of weaponising Muslim anger by misrepresenting Labour’s position on Palestine. A video emerged of Leadbeater, who has a female partner, being accosted in the street over LGBT+ education in schools. In a shameful low, the woman whose sister was stabbed to death in this very constituency had to be given police protection.

Yet the insidiousness of what Leadbeater faced may have ultimately helped her cause. By Monday, with Galloway supporters appearing ever more aggressive, red-rosed campaigners noticed a slight shift on the doorstep; Leadbeater was being praised more and more for her dignity in the face of abuse.

“There were shops and houses with his [Galloway’s] posters in the window but when you spoke to people, they absolutely weren’t impressed by what was happening” says Habiban Zaman, a ward councillor in Batley East who, despite fancying a shot at parliament herself, continued to back Leadbeater through the campaign.

“They were saying all the right things to us but you don’t know if they’re just saying that to be polite. I really didn’t know. All I know was it [the feedback on the door] didn’t match with what newspapers were saying.”

Kim Leadbeater embraces her mother, Jean, in Clackheaton on Friday after she won the Batley and Spen by-election

At the other end of the spectrum, the Tories managed to avoid being dragged into the mudslinging — but Stephenson’s virtually invisible campaign appears to have had the opposite effect to that intended.

The Leeds City councillor was said to have pounded the streets promising jobs and Tory government grants, bu he refused almost all interview requests from national and local media. It did not pass without comment that he offered no opinions on thorny issues such as Palestine or the rights of a teacher to return to the local grammar school after previously being suspended for showing students a cartoon of the Prophet Muhammad.

If such anonymity — apparently masterminded by Tory media strategist Jonathan Redhead – helped Jill Mortimer to secure victory in Hartlepool, it appears not to have worked with voters here where Leadbeater was making loud and positive promises to go to Westminster fighting for the patch where she was born.

The figures bear this theory out; the Tories may have reduced Labour’s majority, but they also lost votes in this contest.

All of which leads us to one question: did Labour win because, or in spite, de Sir Keir Starmer’s leadership?

He was among several Labour big-hitters who visited the seat during the campaign, but Leadbeater appeared to dodge a BBC question on Friday morning over whether the party leader had been an asset.

“The focus of the campaign was very much listening to local people and speaking to local people and sometimes national issues came up," elle a dit. “But I have to be honest, the vast majority of conversations were about very local issues.”

Suggestions that this victory removes doubts about Sir Keir’s leadership may prove premature.

In West Yorkshire there remains a feeling that lessons must still be learnt, even in victory.

“If we’ve scraped through on this one, we got lucky,” says Gulfam Asif, a self-cemployed consultant and Labour member of almost 20 années. “But if we don’t learn lessons we won’t be lucky again.

“We must start listening to our communities and stop taking them for granted.”