Labour's narrow victory in Batley and Spen does not conceal Starmer's political bankruptcy, argues Shabbir Lakha
If you listened carefully on Friday morning, you could have heard Keir Starmer’s massive sigh of relief echo across the country. It was widely predicted that Labour could lose the Batley and Spen by-election, and in the event, the knives were already out and sharpened.
So understandably, avoiding the humiliation of an opposition party losing its third by-election in a row, and the potential challenge to his leadership that might have followed, is a cause for celebration for Starmer. But is it the triumphant vindication of the party under his leadership that Labour is now claiming?
Decisively not. Labour’s candidate Kim Leadbeater clung on to the seat with a mere 323 votes more than the Tories, a reduction of almost 9,300 votes from the 2019 election, on a dismal 47.6% turnout. With incumbent governments typically set to fare badly in by-elections and in this case being responsible for 150,000 Covid deaths and having their corruption repeatedly exposed, Labour coming a hair’s breadth away from losing is hardly a ringing endorsement of the party.
Yet, Starmer has called it a “fantastic achievement” and someone from their Batley campaign claimed that Labour “won back a lot of 2019 Tory voters” and that “this result shows we’re reconnecting with the wider electorate again”. Apparently, this is what a 2.9% swing to the Tories amounts to.
But the fact that Labour did hold on to the seat and that a few weeks ago the Tories were beaten in the Chesham and Amersham election (where Labour came fourth and lost its deposit by winning only 0.6% of the vote) shows that the Tories are not untouchable. Starmer’s excuse after the Hartlepool defeat that the Tories were riding high because of a “vaccine bounce” doesn’t add up.
Surely Starmer can’t get away with pretending everything’s cushty for Labour? While on the one hand Starmer is touting the Batley and Spen result as a major victory, he is also on the other hand trying to explain away Labour’s electoral failings by blaming Muslims and the left.
It was the Muslims
With George Galloway winning over 8,000 votes, it’s clear that Labour lost the Muslim vote that has traditionally been with Labour. Labour has tried to explain away this loss of support by labelling Muslims homophobic and antisemitic.
After the result on Friday, a Labour source from the Batley campaign claimed that Labour “lost the conservative Muslim vote over gay rights and Palestine”. Paul Mason wrote in his response to the result that,
“Galloway’s vote of 8,264 was driven by a mixture of the youthful radicalism that put tens of thousands of young Muslims on the streets during the latest Gaza atrocities and the homophobia and anti-feminism of some among the older generation.”
While Galloway and some involved in his campaign made homophobic comments which should be condemned, there is no evidence that homophobia is more prevalent among Muslims (in Batley and Spen or generally) than in wider society or that views on LGBT issues had any significant resonance on voting intentions.
Ahead of the election, a “senior Labour official” briefed the Daily Mail that the reason Labour was polling low among Muslims, who make up almost 20% of the constituency, was because Keir Starmer had spoken out about antisemitism. Another completely unfounded claim.
It’s quite an electoral tactic to insult the voters you’re trying to win. It is a continuation of the conflation of support for Palestine with antisemitism that Starmer’s leadership has deliberately perpetuated throughout his tenure.
The by-election has followed big mobilisations in solidarity with Palestine during recent attacks on Jerusalem and Gaza, an issue which is of significant importance to Britain’s Muslims and which featured heavily on the doorstep in Batley and Spen.
The Labour leadership pointing to this as evidence of antisemitism is not only deeply offensive, and helped to cement disillusionment among Muslims with Labour, but will be sure to boost Islamophobic ideas.
Research has shown that the key driver of Islamophobia in Britain in the last two decades has been its War on Terror and the justifications for it by demonising Muslims. This has been translated by the British state into policy through the counterterrorism apparatus, including the Prevent programme, that has directly targeted the Muslim community and has seen young Muslims showing support for Palestine being referred to counterterrorism police.
The rhetoric and directives of the state directly bolster far-right talking points which are used to fuel hate crimes against Muslims. This is what Keir Starmer is feeding into and he should be utterly ashamed.
There is a complete failure in his party to recognise that foreign policy cannot be separated from domestic policy, and surprise surprise, your positions on Palestine and Kashmir.
But equally that these are not the only things Muslims care about. The vast majority of Muslims in Britain are working class and Starmer’s Labour has nothing to offer them. Wajjad Hussein, a 33 year old Muslim constituent in Batley told The Guardian,
“I’ve voted Labour my whole life but I won’t be blindly giving them my vote any more. And that’s not just about Palestine. It’s everything locally. They’ve been in power here for 25 years but only now they’re under threat do they care about Asians”
The spectre of Corbyn
When all else fails, there is one bottomless pit that the Labour right can always reach into to explain their woes. Blaming it on the left. Speaking on Radio 4 on Friday, arch Blairite and key Starmer advisor, Peter Mandelson had this to say,
“Let’s be honest, there were elements of the Corbynite left who seemed far too eager during this campaign for Galloway’s presence to result in a blow to Keir Starmer and his leadership. I mean while others were campaigning in Batley, I mean they were conspiring.”
Quite rich coming from the guy who four years ago boasted that he “work[s] every single day in some small way to bring forward the end of [Jeremy Corbyn]’s tenure in office. Every day. Something. However small it may be.”
As with the defeat in Hartlepool, the Labour machine, which is firmly in the control of the right, has suggested it is the legacy of Corbyn that has tainted the party. This is despite Corbyn’s Labour winning both Hartlepool and Batley and Spen in 2017 and 2019, with a swing to Labour in 2017.
And this is despite Keir Starmer’s only message being “a new leadership” and very publicly trying to root out the left from the party including withdrawing the whip from Corbyn and suspending left members and CLPs up and down the country.
What’s clear is that it’s not the left and it’s not Muslims that are the source of Labour’s troubles. Keir Starmer’s “loyal opposition” has refused to hold the government to account and fails to provide any kind of alternative to the Tories. So it’s unsurprising that voters have no reason to vote for Labour.
Starmer might have secured his leadership in the party for the time being, but the Batley and Spen result has reconfirmed that Labour is continuing to hemorrhage its voter base and Starmer has no solutions to stop it.
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Shabbir Lakha is a Stop the War officer, a People's Assembly activist and a member of Counterfire.
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