The Labour party’s record in by-elections is so bad that it makes England’s record in major football tournaments look good. The party has gained only one parliamentary seat in a by-election since 1997. A good night these days is when it doesn’t lose one.
On Thursday night, that happened. Labour held on to Batley and Spen, a pro-Brexit seat with a large minority ethnic population. The Tories made their familiar, and arguably pork-barrelled, pitch that a Tory MP would attract Treasury spending to the area. George Galloway, a divisive former Labour MP, won over a chunk of Muslim voters by stirring up sentiment against Israel and LGBT+ education in schools.
Labour resisted, with a shrunken majority of 323 votes. It is now standing still, rather than reversing. But where is the forward momentum?
The party of Attlee, Wilson and Blair has lost four elections in a row, and is around 10 points behind in the polls. It behaves like a sect that hates itself. Except sects tend to have charismatic leaders, and the Labour incumbent, Sir Keir Starmer, is so unexciting that it’s possible to follow politics quite closely for weeks and forget he exists. The suspicion is that the lawyer who only became an MP in 2015 has left it too late to learn politics. If the prime minister, Boris Johnson, is a Teflon politician, Starmer is Velcro. Every charge sticks to him, whether it’s that he’s too liberal or too authoritarian. His net approval rating has gone from zero at the start of the year to minus 25 now.
Starmer says he is on a four-year mission to turn Labour around before the next general election. But a lack of progress has disappointed even core supporters. He appears aloof, a manager rather than a motivator. Even at prime minister’s questions, a format suited to an advocate, he has a lecturing tone that might persuade a judge but won’t attract voters.
The answer is not a better leader. Labour doesn’t have one. The party has a talent problem: its MPs are relatively old and the young, sensible ones were banished during the Corbyn years. Angela Rayner, the deputy leader, represents a plain-speaking, working-class Labour party, but she has achieved little recently other than undermining Starmer with disloyal whispers. Andy Burnham, mayor of Greater Manchester, was re-elected in May for a three-year term.
Had Batley and Spen been lost, Starmer’s leadership would be in question. Instead he has a second chance — or, his defenders might say, a first proper chance. He can go round the country like Johnson does, giving rousing conference speeches. For the first time, he won’t be up against a government that wins sympathy because of the pandemic. When ministers have been challenged on their failure to come up with a plan for social care, or to follow procurement rules, they have replied that their priority was fighting the pandemic.
That won’t wash now — first because the emergency is passing, and second because we now know that, even while it was raging, the then health secretary had plenty of time for an affair. And how is the prime minister’s flat refurbishment going?
Labour stands for more funding for the NHS, catch-up schooling and green infrastructure. That hasn’t cut through in a pandemic, when the government is spending hundreds of billions more anyway. But it can cut through now, if Starmer attaches the policies to a personality.
In Batley and Spen, Labour’s candidate Kim Leadbeater was upbeat and local. She stood for decency in the face of a horrid culture war. She also started her acceptance speech by thanking the police who protected her. Can Starmer make Labour resonate like this nationally? It shouldn’t take three more years to find out. The next six months should be enough.