Batley & Spen by-election 2021: Keir Starmer faces moment of truth

Voters in the West Yorkshire constituency of Batley and Spen are going to the polls in a by-election touted as a fundamental test of Sir Keir Starmer‘s leadership of the Labour Party.

Labour is defending a majority of more than 3,000 in the seat but the bookies have the Conservatives as odds-on favourites to follow up their victory in Hartlepool in May and heap further pressure on Sir Keir.

Sir Keir’s spokesman has insisted he will not resign if Labour loses but new polling this week suggested that as many as four in 10 party members would want him to stand down and make way for new leadership in the wake of a loss.

Supporters of deputy leader Angela Rayner have been preparing for her to challenge Sir Keir’s leadership if he loses the by-election today, according to reports in The Times.

Residents are voting amid accusations of racism and foul play in an area with a multi-cultural population.

Earlier this week, Labour lashed out over a fake leaflet which purported to have been released by the Trades Union Congress (TUC) highlighting party leader Keir Starmer’s support for Black Lives Matter in a bid to hit his popularity among working class white voters.

The TUC said it was part of a ‘dirty tricks campaign’ and those responsible ‘should be ashamed of themselves’.

Voters in the West Yorkshire constituency of Batley and Spen are going to the polls in a by-election touted as a fundamental test of Sir Keir Starmer's leadership of the Labour Party

Voters in the West Yorkshire constituency of Batley and Spen are going to the polls in a by-election touted as a fundamental test of Sir Keir Starmer's leadership of the Labour Party

Voters in the West Yorkshire constituency of Batley and Spen are going to the polls in a by-election touted as a fundamental test of Sir Keir Starmer’s leadership of the Labour Party

Labour is defending a majority of more than 3,000 in the seat but the bookies have the Conservatives as odds-on favourites to follow up their victory in Hartlepool in May and heap further pressure on Sir Keir

Labour is defending a majority of more than 3,000 in the seat but the bookies have the Conservatives as odds-on favourites to follow up their victory in Hartlepool in May and heap further pressure on Sir Keir

Labour is defending a majority of more than 3,000 in the seat but the bookies have the Conservatives as odds-on favourites to follow up their victory in Hartlepool in May and heap further pressure on Sir Keir

A close ally of Ms Rayner told the newspaper: ‘There’s definitely been people sounding out the possibility – it’s clear she’d easily reach 40 nominations – and urging her to run if the worst happens in Batley.’

However, the Ashton under Lyne MP tweeted to say the story was ‘news to me’.

The by-election was seen as a straight fight between Labour’s Kim Leadbeater and the Tories’ Ryan Stephenson, but the arrival of veteran campaigner George Galloway in the constituency provided an extra headache for Labour’s campaign managers.

Mr Galloway said he was targeting Labour voters in an explicit attempt to topple Sir Keir.

And tensions between his Workers Party and Labour supporters made the campaign increasingly bitter, with the most controversial arguments centring on the parties’ stance on international issues, including Kashmir and Palestine, as they battled to secure votes in the area’s various Asian communities.

Labour activists said they were pelted with eggs and kicked in the head while on the campaign trail at the weekend and West Yorkshire Police said an 18-year-old man from Batley was arrested on suspicion of assault in connection with an attack on canvassers.

Sir Keir's spokesman has insisted he will not resign if Labour loses but new polling this week suggested that as many as four in 10 party members would want him to stand down and make way for new leadership in the wake of a loss

Sir Keir's spokesman has insisted he will not resign if Labour loses but new polling this week suggested that as many as four in 10 party members would want him to stand down and make way for new leadership in the wake of a loss

Sir Keir’s spokesman has insisted he will not resign if Labour loses but new polling this week suggested that as many as four in 10 party members would want him to stand down and make way for new leadership in the wake of a loss

Labour party candidate Kim Leadbeater leaves Norristhorpe United Reformed Church polling station today after casting her vote in the West Yorkshire constituency

Labour party candidate Kim Leadbeater leaves Norristhorpe United Reformed Church polling station today after casting her vote in the West Yorkshire constituency

Labour party candidate Kim Leadbeater leaves Norristhorpe United Reformed Church polling station today after casting her vote in the West Yorkshire constituency

Ms Leadbeater is the sister of former Batley and Spen MP Jo Cox, who was murdered in the constituency in 2016

Ms Leadbeater is the sister of former Batley and Spen MP Jo Cox, who was murdered in the constituency in 2016

Ms Leadbeater is the sister of former Batley and Spen MP Jo Cox, who was murdered in the constituency in 2016

Earlier this week, Labour lashed out over a fake leaflet which purported to have been released by the Trades Union Congress (TUC) highlighting party leader Keir Starmer's support for Black Lives Matter in a bid to hit his popularity among working class white voters

Earlier this week, Labour lashed out over a fake leaflet which purported to have been released by the Trades Union Congress (TUC) highlighting party leader Keir Starmer's support for Black Lives Matter in a bid to hit his popularity among working class white voters

Earlier this week, Labour lashed out over a fake leaflet which purported to have been released by the Trades Union Congress (TUC) highlighting party leader Keir Starmer’s support for Black Lives Matter in a bid to hit his popularity among working class white voters

Sir Keir condemned as ‘disgraceful’ the abuse of his candidate after she was confronted by a man last week.

Ms Leadbeater is the sister of former Batley and Spen MP Jo Cox, who was murdered in the constituency in 2016.

She cast her vote early on Thursday morning in the Liversedge area of the seat, giving a thumbs-up to waiting photographers.

Ms Leadbeater has stressed she is the only one of the 16 candidates eligible to vote because she lives in the constituency.

The Labour leader’s spokesman insisted on Wednesday that he is on a ‘four-year path’ to lead the party back into power and would not be standing down if he oversaw another electoral defeat.

The by-election was seen as a straight fight between Labour's Kim Leadbeater and the Tories' Ryan Stephenson, but the arrival of veteran campaigner George Galloway in the constituency provided an extra headache for Labour's campaign managers. Above: A voter at the polls today

The by-election was seen as a straight fight between Labour's Kim Leadbeater and the Tories' Ryan Stephenson, but the arrival of veteran campaigner George Galloway in the constituency provided an extra headache for Labour's campaign managers. Above: A voter at the polls today

The by-election was seen as a straight fight between Labour’s Kim Leadbeater and the Tories’ Ryan Stephenson, but the arrival of veteran campaigner George Galloway in the constituency provided an extra headache for Labour’s campaign managers. Above: A voter at the polls today

Sir Keir’s spokesman played down the prospect of a victory by saying it ‘has always been a marginal seat’ and that winning ‘was always going to be challenging’.

There is a prospect of a backbench revolt if the seat is lost but it is unclear if any challenger would be able to secure the support of the 40 Labour MPs needed to trigger a leadership contest.

The West Yorkshire constituency has voted Labour since 1997.

But a Survation poll published last week put the Tories on 47%, up 11% from the 2019 general election, while Labour was on 43%.

The Batley and Spen by-election was triggered after Tracy Brabin, who won the seat for Labour in 2019 with a 3,525 majority over the Conservatives, was elected as the mayor of West Yorkshire in May. 

Earlier this week, Labour’s former MP in the seat, Tracey Brabin, who quit after being elected mayor of West Yorkshire, also claimed last night that activists had been pelted with eggs and kicked in the head while on the campaign trail.

Labour itself was under pressure after one of it circulated a leaflet critical of Boris Johnson’s diplomatic dealings with Indian president Narendra Modi – a Hindu nationalist – in an area with a sizable Muslim population.

Last week, supporters of hard Left former MP George Galloway, who is also standing in the election, were accused of using the recent fighting between Israel and Hamas in Palestine – and the Jewish heritage of Sir Keir’s wife – to attack Labour.

And last Friday, Sir Keir condemned as ‘disgraceful’ the abuse Labour candidate Kim Leadbeater faced while campaigning.

Ms Leadbeater was confronted by a man who challenged her over the situation in Kashmir and her stance on LGBT+ education in schools amid what he said were concerns from Muslim parents.

The Tories believe they are in a strong position to take the seat, which would heap more pressure on Sir Keir to step down or face a leadership challenge.

Ms Brabin said she was leafleting with ‘colleagues, volunteers, campaigners’ in Batley on Sunday when they ‘were followed, verbally abused and physically assaulted by a group of young men’.

She said: ‘The group I was with included young people and the elderly. I witnessed them being egged, pushed and forced to the ground and kicked in the head.’

West Yorkshire Police confirmed on Sunday evening that they were investigating, and Ms Brabin – who also holds the police and crime commissioner responsibility for the region – praised officers for their swift response.

But she added: ‘We know why tensions are rising in our streets. Those who want to sow division are not welcome in our community.

‘The actions of these people do not represent the Batley and Spen I know. We are kinder than this.’

Labour MP for Halifax Holly Lynch added: ‘There has been a series of increasingly serious and violent attacks in recent days and this is absolutely unacceptable.

‘Lawless thugs are seeking to intimidate and attack those involved in the proper democratic process.’ 

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