The blue paint splattered across Hartlepool had barely dried by the time the political commentators had moved on to the next by-election, this time in the West Yorkshire ward of Batley and Spen.
Historically Labour and yet perilously poised, all the indicators point to another upset for Sir Keir Starmer, who will be in no rush to usher in a fresh vote on the back of a mauling in the local elections. Along with Hartlepool Labour shed some 327 councillors at a local level and lost control of eight councils. Their biggest defeat came in County Durham, which saw the party lose overall control of the council for the first time in almost a century.
A by-election looms in Batley and Spen
If Batley and Spen goes the same way it will be down to the same factors, or so the narrative goes. A poor choice of political representation, not setting a clear enough agenda and having no answer to a resurgent Conservative Party fuelled by the affable Boris Johnson and his so-called vaccine bounce. News that Jo Cox’s sister Kim Leadbeater has thrown her hat into the ring will come as welcome news to Labour, but will it be enough?
Early indicators show that it could be close. Britain Elects calculates that the Tories have a very slight lead in the constituency of 0.3 percent based on local election results. Tracy Brabin, who gave up the seat after she was elected West Yorkshire mayor, held the seat with a 8,961 majority in 2017, but by 2019 that was reduced to 3,525, which is around the same size as the one Labour had in Hartlepool.
How important is Brexit still?
But unlike Hartlepool the Brexit Party is less of a factor. In 2019, Nigel Farage’s newly formed political group took 25.8 percent of the vote in Hartlepool but just 3.2 per cent in Batley and Spen, meaning the ‘defection rate’ is unlikely to be as severe. There is the ‘Heavy Woollen District Independents’ to contend with, who got a not-so-insignificant 6,432 votes last time out on a ‘taking back control of our borders’ card, but they are yet to commit to standing again.
So Brexit is a factor, but it doesn’t appear to be as big a factor as it was in Hartlepool. The wider Leeds area voted to remain in the EU in 2016 (just) and their former MP, the much-missed Jo Cox, was staunchly pro-Remain.
But that doesn’t mean Labour will be free from Europe worries, quite the contrary. Indeed, they may soon realise that if Hartlepool was a sucker punch, Batley and Spen will be the knockout blow, signalling a rot that is far more deep-rooted than the oft-cited populist movement that is only partly to blame for Labour’s woes.
The demise of the centre-left
Indeed, to get to the bottom of the Labour Party’s demise you have to go back to Greece, circa 2012, when the main centre-left party PASOK – which had dominated Greek politics since the early eighties – collapsed, going from a comfortable 43.9 percent of the vote to 13.2 percent.
Their implosion came to typify a wider problem happening across the continent, which saw centre-left parties, who had transitioned into the bastions of globalisation and neoliberal economics – the so-called ‘Third Way’ – fall apart, only meeting resistance in the metropolitan capital cities.
Sound familiar? Well, despite our best efforts to isolate ourselves on the political front, Britain does not live in a vacuum, and the Labour Party now stands in the firing line as we transition ourselves to align with, dare I say it, our “European friends”.
Labour’s future lies in a progressive alliance
But as well as encapsulating the problem, the continent can also offer up a solution. As Paul Mason recently wrote, Labour’s task is to construct an election-winning alliance from two demographics: the small-town workers and the big-city salariat.
It must accept that as a lone party its chances of success in the next ten years are miniscule. It has lost Scotland and it has lost the north, but it still brings with it the might of Britain’s metropolis, and that puts its hand on the tiller even if it isn’t in charge of the crew.
The Batley and Spen by-election should demonstrate, if nothing else, that the future for Labour lies in a progressive alliance not dissimilar to those struck in Europe on a regular basis. Ironic as it may be, Europe will be the party’s saviour as well as its demise.