To say that Sir Keir Starmer’s team were happy would be an understatement. ‘Take away Galloway and we would have stormed it,’ a senior aide told me gleefully a couple of hours after Labour’s surprise by-election victory in Batley was confirmed.
‘This shows we can win over Tory voters. Kim Leadbeater ran a campaign rooted in optimism and hope.’
This euphoria is understandable. The sharks were circling. In the hours before the polls opened, the Left-wing Campaign Group of Labour MPs assembled to plot how best to mount a leadership contest once the seat was lost.
Allies of deputy leader Angela Rayner briefed the press that she was ‘sounding out’ colleagues to prepare her own challenge.
‘Take away Galloway and we would have stormed it,’ a senior aide told me gleefully a couple of hours after Labour’s surprise by-election victory in Batley was confirmed. ‘This shows we can win over Tory voters. Kim Leadbeater ran a campaign rooted in optimism and hope.’
‘It’s clear she’d easily reach 40 nominations,’ they boasted. Corbynite cheerleaders were fanning out across social media, predicting that Starmer was destined to be ‘absolutely destroyed’ in the leadership election set to follow.
But though Starmer defied his critics, he cannot so easily defy electoral reality. Kim Leadbeater ran a campaign that was personally brave. But it was not politically brave and it was certainly not rooted in ‘optimism and hope’.
She suddenly aligned herself with the cause of the Palestinians, even though there was little evidence she had taken an interest in the issue before her selection. As I reported last week, she failed dismally to adequately speak out on behalf of the Batley Grammar teacher forced into hiding after showing his class a cartoon of the Prophet Mohammed. And she allowed sectarian leaflets to be distributed in her name, seeking to divide the Muslim and Hindu communities.
Her supporters argue – with some justification – that their candidate was simply trying to survive the toxic atmosphere created by her opponents and that her victory was the ultimate riposte to that campaign. But not stooping to the level of George Galloway, and holding your head up high, are not the same thing.
Allies of deputy leader Angela Rayner briefed the press that she was ‘sounding out’ colleagues to prepare her own challenge
In the hours immediately after the result, Labour were also at pains to frame Batley as a political turning point. One of the key messages was that their victory, despite Galloway securing 20 per cent of the vote, showed they were now in a position to directly take the fight to Boris.
According to party sources, in wards where Labour trailed badly in May’s council elections, they clawed their way back to parity. But again, Starmer and Labour need a reality check.
Although the presence of Galloway on the ballot – coupled with the absence of popular local Brexit supporter Paul Halloran, who siphoned off nearly 7,000 votes in the General Election – made this a very difficult challenge, there were other factors in their favour.
Leadbeater was a popular local candidate. Matt Hancock and his affair had more of a presence on the doorsteps than Tory hopeful Ryan Stephenson.
The ‘vaccine bounce’ which had boosted Boris in Hartlepool was brought back to earth by the cancellation of the June 21 Freedom Day.
And images of Leadbeater being harassed and abused on the same streets her sister had been murdered on five years before helped generate sympathy and support.
Which feeds into another reality. Although Labour held the seat by 300 slender votes, Batley & Spen fits a familiar pattern.
In Hartlepool, the party’s vote share fell nine points on its disastrous 2019 Election showing.
In the 2017 local elections, when Labour was still in Corbyn’s socialist grip, Labour came seven points behind the Tories, losing more than 300 seats. And on Thursday, the party’s vote share again slumped by more than seven points, a 3,500 majority being almost wiped out.
This is simply not where an opposition can afford to be as their opponents enter their second decade of government.
When Starmer was first elected, the question many Labour MPs were asking themselves was: Will he be our Blair, or will he be our Kinnock?
First out of the door should be Corbyn. The Left’s lost leader now occupies the same role within Labour that Donald Trump occupies within the Republicans. A scab that will not heal until it is excised
This morning they have the answer. Or half an answer. Starmer is not the new Tony Blair, and he is never going to be.
Which means Labour’s leader now faces a choice. He can use the time and space granted by his Batley reprieve to drift on. Like Brown and Miliband and Corbyn before him, he can simply manage Labour’s decline.
The odd snappy PMQs session that will produce a temporary poll blip. The occasional sharp policy intervention to secure a Government U-turn. After which, Boris throws off the Covid shackles, introduces a couple of unaffordable but popular tax cuts, calls a snap Election and returns to No 10 with a majority of 50.
Or Starmer can ‘do a Kinnock’. Be brave. Take a stand. Tell his party some unpalatable home truths. And run the saboteurs out of Labour’s ranks for good.
First out of the door should be Corbyn. The Left’s lost leader now occupies the same role within Labour that Donald Trump occupies within the Republicans. A scab that will not heal until it is excised.
He should be followed immediately by his fellow travellers. It’s now nearly two years since Alan Johnson – a genuine working-class leader – sat in ITV’s Election night studio and raged: ‘I want Momentum gone. Go back to your student politics.’
But they still haven’t gone, and they need to go. Momentum’s plastic Marxists. The online Socialist Influencers. The Corbynite activists who spent the by-election campaign making common cause with Galloway, excusing the disgusting antisemitic and homophobic abuse being thrown at Kim Leadbeater, Starmer and his family, and attempting to smear anyone who had the temerity to point it out.
And then there needs to be a final reckoning. With his deputy leader.
As one Shadow Minister said to me: ‘He’s going to have to do something about Angela. Her people are out of control. The briefing has to stop. The Angy-bargy has to stop.’
But it won’t stop. Rayner’s advisers were adamant they had no hand in the threats against Starmer. ‘Angela has not been manoeuvring at any point, and that’s what we’ve told people who have bothered to ask,’ one senior aide told me.
But ‘friends’ of the deputy leader spent the week before Batley polling day telling anyone who would listen that a challenge was in the offing. And Rayner did nothing to pull them into line. So she, too, has a choice. She can get behind Starmer and decide to be a serious deputy in the mould of John Prescott. Or Starmer has to show some serious leadership himself, stop trying to coddle her with fancy titles, and cast her off into the backwater of Shadow Minister for Paperclips.
Because this is the truth about Batley. Starmer’s enemies weren’t in front of him but behind him. The Tories were no threat. Galloway – for all his braggadocio – wasn’t the real threat. The true danger came from within Starmer’s own ranks.
This is the lesson Labour’s leader needs to learn. He can broker no peace. Like Kinnock and his fight with Militant 30 years before, Starmer and the Corbynites are in a political battle to the death. Either he destroys them, or they destroy him. There is no middle way.
‘Labour’s coming home,’ Starmer said cheerily, echoing the words of Tony Blair. But Labour isn’t. It’s only if he recognises that, that he can save his leadership and his party.