openDemocracyUK: Analysis

Batley and Spen shows that Johnson is mortal

Dirty tricks and George Galloway made headlines, but the core story is that Johnson’s march is slowing

Seth Thévoz close-up
Seth Thévoz
2 July 2021, 4.52pm
Kim Leadbeater and her mother today
Peter Byrne/PA Images/Alamy Stock Photo. All rights reserved

The Batley and Spen by-election was one of the dirtiest of recent years. And one of the less predictable. A Survation poll had suggested a comfortable Conservative lead over Labour, with George Galloway losing his deposit. In the end, Labour unexpectedly held the seat, in a way that tells us about the atomisation of British politics.

Batley and Spen, a patchwork of different towns and villages, showed its independent streak by failing to conform to expectations – or its nearby seats. On the one hand, the Conservatives hoped to repeat their success in neighbouring Morley and Outwood, where a once-safe Labour seat turned out Ed Balls six years ago, and has since turned solidly Conservative. On the other hand, Galloway hoped to repeat his sensational 2012 by-election upset in nearby Bradford West. Both were disappointed.

The Galloway intervention

In the event, the result was thrown into turmoil by the intervention of Galloway. The firebrand left-winger is not the electoral force he once was. After a picaresque parliamentary career representing three constituencies in Glasgow, London and Bradford (after starting as a councillor in Dundee), the former MP has become something of an also-ran in recent elections. In the past five years, he barely held his deposit (polling 5.7%) in Manchester Gorton and has lost deposits in London, West Bromwich East and South Scotland. Sealing his reputation for improbable transitions, Galloway raised eyebrows when he endorsed the conservative Brexit Party in 2019.

Galloway was on more comfortable ground in Batley and Spen. Ever since his split from the Labour Party over the Iraq War, Galloway has been conspicuously skilled at peeling off Muslim voters from Labour’s electoral coalition, acting as a conduit for dissatisfaction. He had notable success scoring sensational election upsets in Bethnal Green and Bow in 2005, as well as Bradford West in 2012.

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Galloway appears to have made little effort to reach out further than his Muslim hinterland

Even campaigning for the Respect party in Leicester South in 2004 (as party leader rather than candidate), he was an energetic presence, taking to a megaphone on a bus for 14-hour days – I vividly recall being able to measure how far away he was from the constant invective on his megaphone. And for all his undoubted opportunism, migrating from seat to seat, even Galloway’s bitterest foes will admit to envying his oratorical gifts.

Yet he has been less successful at turning this into a base. In both Bethnal Green and Bow, and Bradford, Galloway effectively mobilised protest votes for an initial victory, but failed to secure re-election.

During the campaign, Galloway was filmed explaining his strategy: that there were 20,000 Muslim voters in the seat, and that if they were mobilised by working the mosques, their votes could propel him to win the seat. His poll of 8,264 shows the strengths and limitations of this sectarian strategy, and his claims of “80 or 90% support” among Muslim voters rang hollow. Galloway appears to have made little effort to reach out further than his Muslim hinterland, and prompted widespread condemnation over what were seen as his attempts to pit communities against one another. For his part, Galloway denies all knowledge of the anti-LGBT campaigner who led a crowd that shouted and chased the Labour candidate in the street.

Nonetheless, by any measure, it was a remarkable poll for a newly parachuted-in candidate with no established party and no existing organisation in the constituency. Yet compared to Bradford West, where Galloway mounted a similarly divisive campaign, it was only half as effective, securing him 21% rather than 36%. The result was that Galloway dented the traditional Labour Muslim vote, but if anything, also bit into the Conservative Muslim vote by at least as much.

Judging by Galloway’s virtually delusional monologue this morning, he appears to have expected the strategy to succeed, and was genuinely surprised to have come third.

Legal challenge?

Within minutes of the result, Galloway announced that he would be mounting a legal challenge to the result. It is unlikely to succeed.

No campaign with George Galloway would be complete without such threats from the famously litigious former MP. Even before the result was in, Galloway threatened to sue Kirklees Council over their demand that he take down his election posters, because the mandatory publisher’s imprint on them was deemed too small.

Legal challenges to elections rarely go well. Galloway cited the case of Phil Woolas, in which the Labour MP was unseated for making false representations about the character of Elwyn Watkins, his Lib Dem opponent in the 2010 general election. What Galloway omitted was the crucial word “knowingly”: the Woolas case was unusual because the email trail existed to show that Woolas knew that he was lying when he made false claims about Watkins. Woolas had been foolish enough to put this in writing to his agent. Repeating the 2010 unseating of Woolas may be near-impossible. Indeed, prior to this case, the last time an MP was successfully unseated for this was 1909. Precedents are not on Galloway’s side.

However, even if he were to successfully bring a challenge, the precedents show that voters rarely care for what they see as a sore loser challenging a result. Watkins succeeded in his legal case against Woolas, but in the ensuing by-election, the majority of the replacement Labour candidate rose from 103 to 3,558.

In Winchester in 1997, the defeated Tory MP successfully challenged the result over ballot-stamping irregularities. He was rewarded for his trouble by the Lib Dem majority at the by-election rising from two votes to 21,556. Voters do not like being dragged back to the polls.

Dirty tricks

While Galloway’s complaints will likely be ruled tenuous, this by-election did see a litany of dirty tricks. This has included confrontations, allegations of verbal and physical intimidation, ‘dog whistle’ campaigning and fake leaflets: there was a bogus ‘Black Lives Matter’ leaflet showing Keir Starmer taking the knee, which seemed intended to rile white, socially conservative Labour voters. Ironically, it is not the content which is likely to cause most trouble, but the lack of an official imprint, which is a criminal offence.

There will be pressure on the West Yorkshire Police to investigate all these incidents; yet police are notoriously reluctant to wade into anything political, and there is a strong tendency to inaction after an election.

None of this is new. By-elections have a long history of turning bitter and nasty. The 1983 Bermondsey by-election featured notoriously homophobic campaigning from several parties, including an anonymous leaflet highlighting the Labour candidate Peter Tatchell’s anti-Monarchist views by asking “Which Queen would you vote for?” Labour held back a Lib Dem advance in the 2004 Birmingham Hodge Hill by-election, in a campaign managed by Tom Watson, where leaflets proclaimed, “Remember, Labour is on your side, the Lib Dems are on the side of failed asylum seekers.”

What is different is that in the social media age, these dark arts of by-elections are more easily captured, with anonymous leaflets circulated on Twitter within minutes.

A Labour win – by the skin of its teeth

Despite the narrowness of the result, it is something of a vindication for both the Labour candidate and for Keir Starmer. The Labour victor, Kim Leadbeater, was a charismatic candidate, whose infectious passion for her home area was self-evident. Her campaign attracted some criticism for running on her personal following, often omitting ‘Labour’ from election leaflets. Yet this is nothing new in by-elections – all parties do it, whenever it benefits them.

Leadbeater suffered sustained personal abuse – particularly tasteless, given her sister was murdered as the MP for the constituency five years ago. She also suffered from our paradoxical attitude to politicians. Voters overwhelmingly say that they don’t want professional politicians who have been party apparatchiks for their whole lives. Apparently, from the treatment of Leadbeater, we learn that voters also don’t want politicians who only joined their party a year ago, either.

Labour was every bit as dirty and divisive as anything George Galloway could do

Being a by-election candidate is tough. The pressure is huge, with opponents looking to trip you up over every potential gaffe and supporters pressing you to not let the party down. Accordingly, it is normal for by-election candidates to be managed within an inch of their lives, accompanied by aides and minders every minute of the day, managing every media encounter, avoiding opponents and encouraging sticking to vacuous, inoffensive points. It is not unknown for some campaigns to actively pursue a strategy of hiding a gaffe-prone candidate from the voters until the election is safely over. Leadbeater is therefore to be applauded for putting some stamp of personality on this campaign – she fought it as if she were the underdog.

That does not absolve her campaign, though. Labour was every bit as dirty and divisive as anything George Galloway could do, complete with a notorious leaflet aimed at wooing Muslim voters by portraying Boris Johnson as an ally of India’s Prime Minister Narendra Modi. Leadbeater is not to be faulted for every aspect of the campaign – candidates have little responsibility for their campaign in a modern by-election – though she will have to answer for having publicly defended that leaflet.

The biggest loser of all is the Labour Left, which had clearly been angling for a leadership challenge to Keir Starmer on the back of a disappointing result. Even on polling day, left-wing journalist Owen Jones was not-so-subtly calling for a leadership challenge within a year. There is a sense among supporters of Jeremy Corbyn that he had to face the indignity of a leadership challenge within a year of being elected Labour leader, and so Starmer deserves a similar reckoning.

Few Labour minds are likely to be changed by the by-election, however. Starmer’s supporters are just as likely to claim vindication, and his detractors are just as likely to insist he is still on probation.

One theory already being advanced is that Lib Dem tactical voting was responsible for Labour holding the seat. The argument goes that the Lib Dem vote dropped from 2,462 to 1,254, accounting for Labour’s wafer-thin majority of 323 votes. Yet this is not entirely clear.

As with the Lib Dems, Tory by-election strategy in seats such as this depends on other parties’ turnouts being lower

There just weren’t that many Lib Dem voters in the seat to begin with, as the party had lost its deposit in the past two general elections. The wider drop in turnout will have accounted for part of the Lib Dem drop, and it is far from certain that some Lib Dem voters in this seat didn’t also favour the Conservatives. Moreover, the only real winner of votes in this by-election was George Galloway, so some Lib Dem-to-Galloway transfers are likely. At most, Lib Dem tactical voting will have been just one factor among many others.

Conservative disappointment

Much attention this morning went on the drop in the Tory vote share, although it was just 1.6%. The wider Tory pattern in Batley and Spen is one of flatlining: since 1997, the Conservatives have consistently polled no more than 4% above or below 35% of the vote in this seat.

There is a Conservative rump in this highly diverse constituency, accounting for a little over a third of the vote. If the Labour vote can be brought down, then an upset Tory victory is possible, simply by holding onto the Tory rump in this seat. Yet in good elections and bad, there has been little sign of a Tory revival – certainly not of the 43% of the vote they commanded the last time they held this seat in 1992. As with the Lib Dems, Tory by-election strategy in seats such as this depends on other parties’ turnouts being lower.

Even shock Tory by-election gains – almost unheard of for an incumbent government – have involved only modest changes in their popular vote. Hartlepool in May was won on an increase of just 3,660 votes. Copeland in 2017 was won despite Conservative support shrinking by 438 votes. Batley and Spen shows the limitation of the ‘Red Wall’ strategy – West Yorkshire is very different to County Durham.

While this by-election may be disappointing for the Conservatives so soon after their gain at Hartlepool, it is business as usual for mid-term governments. Indeed, if we look at the past two by-elections, any Conservative government from the 1960s to the 1990s would have been used to a dramatic Liberal gain in a safe Tory seat, and a Labour hold in a Labour seat.

What has made these results disappointing has been the scale of the Tory ambition to keep growing their lead. Conservatives now routinely ignore the long-standing tradition that prime ministers do not campaign in by-elections, and Johnson’s presence on the campaign trail, first in Chesham and Amersham, and now in Batley and Spen, only reinforces this. It makes Johnson worse than a failure: it shows he is only mortal.

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