Batley and Spen: Labour’s by-election headache

Labour MP Tracy Brabin Credit: Chris McAndrew/UK Parliament

Buckle up - the by-election circus is heading for West Yorkshire. Tracy Brabin’s election as West Yorkshire mayor will trigger a potentially nail biting race in her Batley and Spen constituency. Cue a frenzy of visits from Westminster politicians, national media and party activists to a marginal seat both Labour and the Conservatives will desperately want to win.

Unlike other Metro Mayors, the West Yorkshire mayor role encompasses the responsibilities of Police and Crime Commissioner. PCCs are barred from also serving as MPs, so to be ‘sworn in’ as mayor, Tracy Brabin has to stand down as an MP.

After losing in Hartlepool, Labour are already very nervous about the prospect of another defeat in a marginal red-wall seat. Labour’s 2019 majority in Hartlepool was 3,595. In Batley and Spen it was even less, at 3,525.

Credit: PA

The demographics for Batley and Spen are very different from Hartlepool. The seat is one of West Yorkshire’s most diverse, with a large Pakistani and Indian population. Candidate selection for both parties, as always, will be crucial.

“We’re in real danger of losing Batley and Spen,” one senior Labour figure in Yorkshire told me. “We have to select a local candidate.”

They fear the party would have lost the seat in 2019 if not for a strong performance by an independent candidate, who may have taken votes from the Tories. 

Another Labour figure was more confident, and told me the seat was winnable with the right candidate. 

Losing the seat would be a devastating blow for Labour. The seat holds special significance following the murder of Jo Cox in 2016. Tracy Brabin has previously spoken passionately about her determination to ensure her hometown seat remains red.

In the Batley and Spen council seats Labour were defending in 2021, Labour’s majority over the Conservatives was 3,597. In 2016 it was 6,473. In another Batley and Spen council seat, the Conservatives managed to increase their majority. Across all the Batley & Spen council seats, the Tory vote was up 16.2%, and Labour’s vote down 2.5%.

One Conservative activist played down the party’s chances in Batley and Spen and said it was a very different seat to Hartlepool. But they admitted the by-election would be “a free hit” and a chance “to give Labour another kicking”. One Yorkshire Conservative MP was much more upbeat: “We can win it.”

The big early challenge for Labour is deciding when to hold the by-election. They could choose to hold it before summer, capitalising on the relatively better performances for Labour candidates in West Yorkshire in these local elections. Or they could take their time to select the right candidate, delaying the by-election until as late as November.

That would leave Batley and Spen residents without an MP for months, and could see the impact of lifting the lockdown and vaccine rollout benefit Boris Johnson and the Conservatives further still.