Labour Holds Off Johnson’s U.K. Tories in Key Election Win

The U.K. opposition Labour Party dented Boris Johnson’s electoral surge in northern England, unexpectedly holding a key parliamentary seat with a poll victory likely to provide some respite for leader Keir Starmer.

Labour won Thursday’s special election in Batley and Spen, held by the party since 1997, by 323 votes with a count of 13,296, the Press Association said.

Although Batley and Spen is part of the “Red Wall” of northern districts Labour considers its traditional heartlands, the result goes against recent political trends. Johnson’s party has been making in-roads and Labour lost Hartlepool, another former stronghold, to the Tories in May.

For Johnson, the result is a 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 -- Johnson and his party have been enjoying a bounce in national polls due to a vaccination program that has put the country on track to end Covid-19 restrictions this month. Recent polls also 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 embracing an aide in his office in breach of social-distancing rules he helped design.

On Friday, Conservative chair Amanda Milling said the defeat was “very disappointing” and conceded that Hancock scandal had damaged her party’s chances. It came up in conversations with voters during the campaign, she told Sky News in an interview on Friday.

Labour Holds Off Johnson’s U.K. Tories in Key Election Win

For Labour leader Keir Starmer, holding the seat is a relief. “We won this election against the odds, and we did so by showing that when we are true to our values – decency, honesty, committed to improving lives - then Labour can win,” Starmer said on Friday. “This result shows Labour at its best. This is just the start.”

On the eve of the poll, Starmer faced growing questions about whether he could lead the party back to power.

There have been newspapers reports of potential rivals assessing colleagues’ support for a leadership challenge. Speculation was so rife that even Starmer’s deputy, Angela Rayner, tweeted that reports she is canvassing support for a leadership bid were “news to me.”

Tory Setback

“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.”

The Batley and Spen election, which was triggered when the incumbent MP became a regional mayor, was marred by tensions. Five years after Labour MP Jo Cox was murdered by a right-wing extremist in the district ahead of the Brexit referendum, one senior Labour official said it had been one of the most hateful by-elections in recent history.

Kim Leadbeater, Cox’s sister, is now Labour’s MP but she faced abuse over the party’s approach to gay rights and Palestine during the campaign.

©2021 Bloomberg L.P.

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