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Keir Starmer Is Dragging Down the Labour Party

Labour held on in Batley and Spen in spite of Keir Starmer's unpopular leadership, not because of it. An effective local campaign kept him as far away as possible. In thrall to focus groups and media groupthink, Starmer is still guiding Labour onto the rocks.

Britain's Labour Party leader Keir Starmer (R) accompanies Kim Leadbeater (L), Labour's newest MP, as she addresses supporters following her victory in the Batley and Spen by-election. (OLI SCARFF/AFP via Getty Images)

And so, Labour survives in Batley and Spen. Botched efforts to capitalize on England’s Euros enthusiasm aside — “Labour is coming home,” apparently — the result is clearly a shot in the arm for the party’s beleaguered leadership. Written off as lost by commentators, MPs, and staffers in recent weeks, retaining the seat is a rare piece of good news and offers a window of opportunity to stop the slide of the past six months.

But, beneath the surface, there are plenty of reasons to be worried about the result. Labour’s margin in Batley and Spen has fallen from 3,525 in 2019 — a result we were told was the worst imaginable for the party — to just 323. In fact, its vote has fallen from 29,844 just four years ago to 13,296 today. The mortar that once attached this particular brick to the “red wall” has disintegrated.

More worryingly for the party, there are plenty of reasons to believe that the factors which led to the narrow victory in Batley and Spen could not be repeated on a national level. There is a consensus that Labour’s Get Out the Vote operation was crucial in delivering the result — but the party’s activist base is dwindling, with CLPs across the country reporting declining numbers of members engaged on a regular basis. In a general election, or even a national campaign of local elections, these cannot be funneled into one constituency for a concentrated period of time.

Furthermore, the campaign in Batley and Spen was hyper-local. Not only was the candidate, Kim Leadbeater, particularly popular and well known in the area, but she focused almost exclusively on local issues — from fly-tipping to safer roads — which would more typically be the preserve of council elections. That proved remarkably effective in a one-off by-election, but in a general election taking place amid a national political debate, it is very difficult to replicate.

In truth, Leadbeater’s campaign was shaped in large part by the Labour Party’s deep unpopularity at a national level. Her literature throughout the campaign was pink instead of the party’s traditional red — and her last leaflet didn’t even include Labour’s name, but did feature the word “local” six times. Party leader Keir Starmer didn’t feature in her narrative at all during the final weeks, while her Tory rival was heavily dependent on Boris, the government, and the Tories’ record on both Brexit and the vaccine rollout.

By contrast, Batley and Spen provided plenty of evidence that Labour is in trouble. After a loss in Hartlepool and disastrous local election results which saw the party lose voters in both directions — older postindustrial voters to the Tories and younger urban voters to various smaller parties — West Yorkshire saw another section of the party’s core vote break away, with thousands of Muslim voters alienated by the party’s failure to speak out over Palestine and Kashmir.

George Galloway’s 22 percent of the vote was not exclusively Muslim, of course, and included a broader segment of disillusioned working-class people, but his campaign was built on the back of deep-seated anger in West Yorkshire Muslim communities. When you compare this result to his vote share in successive elections since 2016 — 1.4, 5.7, 1.4, 1.4, and 1.5 percent — it is clear that something has changed significantly in the political landscape which made a campaign targeting Labour among the party’s long-time supporters viable once again.

Unfortunately, the party leadership and its outriders appear committed to learning no lessons from this at all. Rather than engage seriously with the reasons why people who had voted Labour for decades were turning their backs on the party, Muslims were instead treated to sweeping generalizations about their reactionary views.

First, a senior Labour official was quoted telling the Mail On Sunday that the reason the party was “haemorrhaging” Muslim votes was because of “what Keir has been doing on antisemitism.” In other words, the local Muslim community was motivated by a hatred of Jews. Then, a deeply unpleasant incident in which an anti-LGBT activist from outside the constituency accosted Kim Leadbeater on the street was turned to cast Muslims in general as homophobic — a claim disgracefully repeated by Paul Mason in the New Statesman today.

Mason wasn’t alone, though. A Labour source told the Times that the party had “lost the conservative Muslim vote over gay rights.” No one should deny that homophobia is a problem which can be weaponized by cynics during election campaigns, especially when candidates themselves are LGBT. But focusing blame for this problem on Muslims is a cynical position in itself — ignoring the reality that anti-LGBT bigotry is stirred up almost every day by our national press, including fearmongering campaigns about what children are taught in school.

Sadly, there was no end to the smears that Muslims in Batley and Spen could expect. Paul Mason even went so far as to brand people who had voted overwhelmingly for Jo Cox and Tracy Brabin as “anti-feminists.”

But this approach of caricaturing your problems rather than dealing with their real basis is consistent with Starmer’s leadership so far. Its monthslong war on “Corbynites” has been motivated by a belief that the Left is something like the Socialist Workers Party: a marginal sect with little if any purchase in wider society.

Seen from this perspective, the only political utility of the Left for Labour is as a punching bag — and the more it is punched, the greater the favor that is gained among the general public. Keir Starmer’s leading cheerleader on the NEC, Luke Akehurst, made this explicit last night, saying “voters like it when Labour leaders put the Hard Left back in their box.”

That hackneyed view might go down well among Britain’s habitually lazy commentariat, but it bears little semblance to reality. In fact, what Labour is now discovering is that the Left represents a real social constituency: a diverse group of those disillusioned by our political and economic system.

This includes young people angry at low wages, sky-high rents, and university debts; Muslims of all ages who have treated the party with growing suspicion since its central role in the War on Terror; minority ethnic voters frustrated by the persistence of deep racial inequalities; and working-class people who came to see little difference between Labour and the Conservatives on issues that impacted their lives over many years.

When Starmer’s leadership refuses to outline a vision for a fundamentally different economy, when it refuses to commit to transforming our political system, when it refuses to stand up against injustice internationally, it believes it is practicing winning politics by distancing itself from the hated Left and the Corbyn years. What we have now seen — from Batley and Spen to Hartlepool, and Bristol to Sheffield — is that Labour’s voters understand this to be an attack on their values and are increasingly unprepared to be treated with contempt.

Keir Starmer won his position as leader on a promise to be electable. But the fact remains that winning a general election today requires 40 percent or more of the vote. This cannot be achieved by chasing a fixed center ground of the broadly satisfied, something which no longer exists. It requires the building of a coalition on increasingly shifting sands — and that means, at a bare minimum, an enthusiastic base and a compelling vision for broader society. Despite Kim Leadbeater’s commendable victory, Batley and Spen shows that this remains a long way off.