Labour clings on in Batley: Jo Cox's sister Kim Leadbeater claims narrow victory

Relief for Keir Starmer as party retains red wall seat in closely-fought by-election

Labour's Kim Leadbeater has narrowly won the Batley and Spen by-election in a victory that has dented Prime Minister Boris Johnson's electoral surge in northern England.

Ms Leadbeater fought off a challenge from the governing Conservatives to hang on to a parliamentary seat that if lost, would have heaped pressure on Labour leader Sir Keir Starmer to stand down.

The victory for Labour, which saw 13,296 to 12,973 votes in favour of its candidate Kim Leadbeater, hands Mr Starmer a reprieve from those questioning whether he can rebuild Britain's main opposition party after a 2019 election disaster.

Ms Leadbeater paid tribute to her sister Jo Cox, the region's former MP who was murdered by a neo-Nazi in the constituency in 2016, after claiming the"hugely emotional victory".

"I’ve thought about Jo an awful lot in these few weeks ... I’ve thought about Jo an awful lot during these last five years," she told BBC's Radio 4 Today programme.

"This was a hugely emotional decision for me to put myself forward and it’s a hugely emotional victory. I was thinking about her children and thinking I can’t wait to give them the biggest hug ever.

"If I could be half the MP Jo was then that would be pretty good going."

Relief for Starmer

Asked whether Mr Starmer had been an asset or a problem for her, she said: "The focus of the campaign was very much listening to local people.

"Lots of people have tried to make this by-election about bigger national things, but for me and the people I’ve spoken to it’s about those local concerns."

Mr Johnson's Conservatives had been cautiously hopeful they could oust Labour from another northern English constituency after winning a contest Hartlepool in May but fell just 323 votes short.

Mr Starmer welcomed the "fantastic result" on Twitter, saying: "Kim ran a positive campaign of hope, in the face of division. She will be an outstanding Labour MP for Batley and Spen."

For Mr Johnson, the result is the second setback in as many weeks, after the Liberal Democrats shocked the Conservatives by winning a special election in Chesham and Amersham. The seat had been held by the Tories since 1974.

Despite Britain recording more than 128,000 deaths in the pandemic - the highest toll in Europe - Mr Johnson and his party are enjoying a bounce in national polls due to a vaccination program that has put the nation on track to end Covid-19 restrictions next month. Recent polls showed the party on course to take the Batley and Spen seat.

But the Tories have also been beset by scandals including the resignation last week of former health secretary Matt Hancock, after he was caught kissing an aide in his office in breach of social distancing rules he helped design.

“The Labour win shows that the Tory hope of demolishing the Red Wall is more complicated than they thought,” said Mark Wickham-Jones, a political science professor at the University of Bristol focusing on the Labour Party.

“It also shows that the electorate is volatile and doesn’t always follow the national narrative.”

Dirty tricks

Labour managed to hold its ground despite an attempt by firebrand leftist George Galloway, leader of the Workers Party of Britain, to split the main opposition party's vote in a race that was tarnished by accusations of dirty tricks.

Mr Galloway, a former Labour politician, had used his support of Palestine to galvanise backing for his alternative party.

In one election leaflet he told voters that he had "fought for Muslims at home and abroad all of my life".

Hope Not Hate, which monitored the presence of the far right in the by-election, has analysed Mr Galloway's language.

“He has become increasingly divisive in his politics and his language,” the group said.

“Since leaving Parliament, Galloway has achieved media notoriety with fiery rhetoric – and divisive language ...“Galloway is another example of someone from outside the area who is seeking to come in and take advantage of local circumstances to further his own career – and ego.”

During the campaign, there had been claims of intimidation including assaults, fake leaflets, dog-whistle racism and homophobia, prompting calls for police and election officials to intervene.

In her victory speech, Ms Leadbeater described the campaign as a "gruelling few weeks" but said "the people of Batley and Spen have rejected division and they've voted for hope".

'Jo would be extremely proud'

She also thanked police, saying she had needed their help more than ever.

"Politics is tough at the minute. I'm really pleased with the win that we've had. We need now, a bit of stability, and I hope I can be part of that," she told Sky News.

"I need to meet all the many people who've supported me in this campaign… and then I want to crack on with the work."

Ms Leadbeater said her sister Jo "would be extremely proud".

"It's very emotional for us as a family," she said.

"I'm Kim Leadbeater, I'm Jo Cox's sister and I'm very proud to be but I am me."

G3YFE9 Previously unreleased photo dated 12/05/15 of Labour MP Jo Cox, who has been shot in Birstall near Leeds, an eyewitness said.

With only just over 300 votes separating the two parties, the result in the by-election, which was triggered after the last Batley and Spen MP became a mayor, showed that neither party was able to capitalise on the other's weaknesses.

The Conservative government was hampered by a slew of scandals, including the resignation of Matt Hancock last month, who stood down as health secretary after he was caught breaking Covid-19 guidelines he had set by kissing his aide.

Mr Starmer has struggled to connect with voters since becoming leader last year, sometimes unable to challenge a government that has won support for its successful Covid-19 vaccination programme.

Britain's 2016 vote to leave the EU has transformed the country's political landscape, with the Conservatives, traditionally the party of more affluent southern areas openly targeting voters in northern England.

Some in the party fear Mr Johnson's strategy to "level up" Britain by tackling its geographical inequalities might be alienating southern English voters after the party suffered a defeat in an election on the outskirts of London last month.

But by-elections offer only partial evidence of trends, pollsters say, and the poll in Batley and Spen may only show a small part of a wider political picture, especially after the race was tarnished by a divisive campaign.

The Muslim vote had come to the fore, with Galloway challenging Labour over its stance on the Palestinians. Labour was criticised for producing a leaflet that featured a photo of Johnson with Indian leader Narendra Modi, saying: "Don't risk a Tory who is not on your side."

The party said it stood by the leaflet.

Updated: July 2nd 2021, 10:19 AM