Keir Starmer has hailed Labour's surprise victory in a byelection in the West Yorkshire seat of Batley and Spen as one of "hope over hatred" which showed that his party was back after a number of electoral setbacks. Kim Leadbeater upset expectations by holding the seat for Labour by 323 votes in a contest that was seen as a referendum on Sir Keir's leadership.
Ms Leadbeater, whose sister Jo Cox held the seat until her murder by a far-right activist days before the 2016 EU referendum, defeated Conservative Ryan Stephenson by 13,246 votes to 12,973. Former Labour MP George Galloway won 8,265 votes, believed to be mostly at Labour's expense.
Mr Galloway’s supporters faced allegations of introducing a toxic element to the campaign by appealing to socially conservative Muslim voters with smears about Ms Leadbeater’s sexuality and the fact that Sir Keir’s wife is Jewish.
"This campaign has been tough because others have poisoned it with hatred, division, finding difference, misinformation, lies, harassment, threats and intimidation. That that should have happened in Batley and Spen of all places is disgusting. That that should have happened to Kim of all people is unforgivable," Sir Keir said.
“And for all those who engaged in it and for all those who didn’t call it out – they should be utterly ashamed of themselves. This is a victory of hope over division. It is a start. Labour is back. Labour is back.”
Ms Leadbeater’s victory came almost two months after Labour lost its formerly safe seat of Hartlepool to the Conservatives in a byelection and a second loss could have triggered a challenge to Sir Keir’s leadership. The Labour leader said it was an important moment for his leadership and promised to unveil new policies ahead of September’s party conference in Brighton.
“As we come out of the pandemic, the restrictions, and I hope we are, the space finally opens up for me to make the arguments about the future. And that’s what I’m going to be doing actually in the summer through a whole series of events and into conference,” he said.
“Making the argument about health and social care, about education… and about work. But certainly during the pandemic it’s been very hard to find the space to make those arguments.”
The Conservatives blamed the controversy surrounding the resignation of former health secretary Matt Hancock for their defeat, which party co-chairwoman Amanda Milling acknowledged as a disappointing result.
“It was something that came up on the doorstep, I have to be honest about that. They had some issues over the weekend in terms of what happened but Matt resigned and that was the right thing to do but there is a whole host of different issues that came up,” she told Sky News.
“But we also need to remember that governing parties don’t gain byelections and actually taking it to such a small number of votes in itself was a tremendous result, quite extraordinary I would say.”