The Labour party has won the Batley and Spen by-election by a margin of just 323 votes in a welcome fillip for Sir Keir Starmer, the beleaguered leader of the UK’s main opposition party.
Kim Leadbeater won 13,296 votes, edging the Conservative party candidate Ryan Stephenson, the bookmakers’ favourite, who secured 12,973 votes.
George Galloway, the controversial former Labour MP who stood as a Workers Party of Britain candidate, came third with 8,264 votes.
The victory in West Yorkshire buys time for Starmer, who said it was a “fantastic result” for Leadbeater after she ran a “positive campaign of hope, in the face of division”.
The Labour leadership had been braced for a new round of infighting if it had lost — a result many of the party’s senior MPs had expected — after a disastrous spring. Labour lost the Hartlepool by-election and shed more than 300 councillors in the local elections in May, and recorded its worst-ever result in the Chesham and Amersham by-election two weeks ago.
With Labour sitting far behind the Tories in the national polls, some hard-left MPs in the party had anticipated that defeat in Batley could precipitate a challenge to Starmer’s leadership. Diane Abbott, a close ally of former leader Jeremy Corbyn, had predicted: “If Labour loses again, it must surely be curtains for him.”
Starmer’s team had been nervous about a potential challenge by Angela Rayner, the deputy leader, whom he had unsuccessfully tried to demote after the Hartlepool result.
Leadbeater is the sister of Jo Cox, the constituency’s former MP who was murdered by a white supremacist just days before the EU referendum in 2016.
Though Labour has held the seat since 1997, it was in Conservative hands throughout the 1980s and 1990s.
The Tories had insisted throughout the campaign that victory could not be assured. “It’s not a Labour win, it’s a Labour hold,” said one Tory aide.
Turnout was 47.6 per cent with 37,786 ballots cast out of an electorate of 79,373.
The by-election was called after Tracy Brabin, the previous MP, resigned to become the first elected mayor of West Yorkshire.
Campaigners have complained about a by-election marred by abuse and allegations of dirty tricks.
Leadbeater said after the polls closed that there had been some “unacceptable lows”. Video footage last week showed her being harassed by supporters of Galloway, who had heavily targeted the local Muslim community with a pro-Palestinian message.
“The acts of intimidation and violence by some who have come here with the sole aim of sowing division have been deeply upsetting to witness,” said Leadbeater.
“Whatever the result . . . the first priorities of the new MP must be to bring our community together and start working for local people in every part of the constituency.”
Galloway said he would seek to challenge the result in the courts after what he suggested had been false claims by political opponents.
Other factors that may have affected the vote include the Matt Hancock scandal. The health secretary resigned last weekend after being caught embracing a female aide in his private office in breach of the lockdown rules he had imposed.
Ayesha Hazarika, a former Labour adviser, said the story had come up on the doorsteps when she was campaigning last week. “It was not just a Westminster village story,” she said. “It was something everyone was talking about and they were really angry about it.”
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