Inside the Batley and Spen count: How Labour won by-election that went down to ‘squeaky bum time’

Pollsters, political commentators and bookies all predicted a comfortable Tory win here. But shortly before 5am on Friday morning, blue hopes were dashed

Colin Drury
in Huddersfield
Friday 02 July 2021 06:39
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<p>Workers Party candidate George Galloway at Cathedral House in Huddersfield on Thursday night</p>

Workers Party candidate George Galloway at Cathedral House in Huddersfield on Thursday night

It was Thursday night and after a long final day campaigning in the Batley and Spen by election, David Hall, leader of the Conservatives on the local Kirklees Council, was in an upbeat mood.

The 46-year-old was born, raised and still lives in this West Yorkshire mill town constituency but, as a lifelong Tory, had never voted for a winning MP here.

“That’s how long it’s been Labour,” he said. “You have to be knocking on for 50 to have helped elect a Conservative here. But we’ll never have a better chance of rewriting history than tonight.”

Seven hours later, shortly before 5am at Huddersfield’s Cathedral House, his hopes were dashed.

In an astonishing Labour victory – and one which will come as huge relief to Sir Keir Starmer – Kim Leadbeater held onto a seat which had been widely predicted to turn blue for the first time since 1997.

The sister of murdered MP Jo Cox won 13,296 votes compared to Tory rival Ryan Stephenson’s 12,973. George Galloway – whose campaign, many feared, could decimate the red vote – came third with 8,264.

“The priority now is to catch up on some sleep, maybe have a few glasses of fizz, and then there is lots to do,” said Leadbeater in a victory speech which then went onto make a pointed reference to the perceived toxicity of Galloway’s operation. “I think the campaign has highlighted that there is lots to do but I will do my very best to represent all of Batley and Spen. I am absolutely delighted that the people of Batley and Spen have rejected division and they voted for hope.”

Her success – a narrow majority of just 323 – was an astonishing turn-around after pollsters, political commentators and bookies all predicted a comfortable Tory win here.

Even in the immediate hours after polls closed at 10pm, optimism among blues remained at what might be termed Hartlepool Levels. Hall was far from the only Conservative who felt a historic victory could be on the cards. Melanie Stephen, another councillor in the constituency, said that a campaign that had focused on jobs and investment had “offered a real alternative to disillusioned” voters.

By contrast Labour’s mood was gloomy. One party official had already begun to talk of possible lessons learned. Even Leadbeater herself appeared to admit she may have lost, in a statement posted on Twitter. “Whatever the result tonight,” she wrote, “the first priorities of the new MP must be to bring our community together and start working for local people.”

Galloway’s campaign manager James Giles, meanwhile, was so certain of Labour’s fall he declared the party was likely to drop into third place behind both the Tories and his own man. “If they knew we’d begun this campaign, just me and George, from the boot of a car, I don’t know if Labour would laugh or cry,” he said, all waistcoat and wide smile, both of which would later disappear.

Because, as the hours passed, and the ballots were piled up on trestle tables, the mood changed.

By 4am, John Craig, the indefatigable Sky News correspondent, described things as “squeaky bum time”. At 4.30am, when the Tory MP Andrew Jones was asked by The Independent whether his party had won, he shrugged. “I’ve been here almost seven hours,” he said. “And I still have no idea.”

Soon after that, two bundle recounts were called. “Don’t you love this drama?” enthused Craig as daylight appeared outside.

By the time the candidates were called onto the stage, it was the 45-year-old Leadbeater who – eagle-eyed reporters noted – was the only one carrying a piece of paper: her victory speech.

It was a climactic end to an oft-troubling contest.

Accusations of intimidation, violence and criminal damage marred the past weeks. Labour activists reported being egged, insulted and threatened by Galloway supporters. They accused him of whipping up Muslim anger and hatred here by misrepresenting Labour’s position on Israel and Palestine; and of trying to turn neighbour against neighbour. A video emerged of Leadbeater being accosted in the street over her views on LGBT+ education in schools. The party reported intimidation at polling stations on Thursday to election officials. “It was schoolyard bullying stuff,” one Labour official said.

In response, Galloway’s team accused Labour of criminal damage to a PA system and of taking down its posters. Gill refused to accept his man’s supporters were guilty of anything. “We condemn any [bad behaviour],” he said. “But show me evidence that these are members of our campaign. There is none.”

After the declaration, meanwhile, Galloway himself took to the car park – trademark fedora and all – to suggest, in Trump style, that it had not been a fair election. “On multiple grounds we will apply to the courts for this election result to be set aside,” he said.

Good luck with that.

Either way, just as in Hartlepool, the implications of victory will be felt far more widely than in Batley and Spen alone; not least for the fact that it will relieve growing pressure on Sir Keir Starmer’s leadership.

Yet it should perhaps also be a reminder to Labour that a key chunk of its historic electoral coalition – northern working class Muslims – can no longer be blindly counted on to vote red.

“If we’ve scraped through on this one, we got lucky,” one local member, Gulfam Asif tells The Independent. “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.”

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