Analysis from our Political Correspondent Harry Horton as polls close in the Batley and Spen by-election.
Officially, it’s been a short and swift by-election campaign. The July 1st polling day was announced just five weeks ago. Unofficially, party leaders have been travelling up from Westminster to Batley and Spen ever since former MP Tracy Brabin announced last year she would quit parliament if elected West Yorkshire Mayor.
The campaign has taken an ugly turn in recent weeks. Police arrested an 18-year-old man after canvassers were allegedly egged and assaulted in Batley.
Labour MP Holly Lynch, who is spearheading the Labour campaign in Batley and Spen, accused the Workers’ Party’s George Galloway of creating “a toxic environment that is suffocating democracy and drowning out the voices of local people”. Galloway strongly denies his campaign has done anything of the sort and says a victory for Labour or the Conservatives would mean "the place and the people here will be quickly forgotten. And the voters know it."
Most voters appear to have little enthusiasm for a fifth parliamentary election in six years, and will be quite happy when the media and political circus leaves the area.
Amidst all the arguments, the Conservatives have emerged as favourites to take back a seat they last held in 1997. The only poll conducted in Batley and Spen has the Tory candidate in line for a comfortable win.
The Conservative candidate Ryan Stephenson has steered well clear of controversy. With the other parties arguing amongst themselves, the Conservatives have a clear path to victory.
At the 2019 election, Labour’s majority in Batley and Spen was just over 3,500. One Labour source told me this week they expected the Tories to take back the seat with at least a 5,000 majority. A Conservative MP who’s been canvassing in the area said the party mood about Batley and Spen was “all quite positive”.
George Galloway - and to an extent the Conservatives - have tried to frame this by-election as a referendum on the Labour leader Keir Starmer. Galloway’s posters, plastered across the constituency, exclaim: ‘Starmer Out!’ Ryan Stephenson, the Conservative candidate, doesn’t mention his Labour rival Kim Leadbeater by name in his campaign literature, only referring to her as ‘Keir Starmer’s candidate’.
Kim Leadbeater is Labour’s ray of hope in Batley and Spen. She’s the sister of former MP Jo Cox, who was murdered in the area in 2016. She was born in the constituency and has lived there her entire life, and is a popular local figure.
If Labour do lose Batley and Spen, it will be for a myriad of reasons: Independent candidate Paul Halloran not standing, George Galloway taking votes from Labour, Keir Starmer’s popularity, a ‘vaccine bounce’ for the government, frustration with Labour-run Kirklees council, voter apathy. All of these factors and more have made this a difficult campaign for Labour.
In recent days, some Labour figures have begun to question why this by-election is taking place at all. It didn’t have to. In being elected as West Yorkshire mayor, Tracy Brabin was forced to vacate the seat. Did Labour do enough to try to persuade Brabin not to stand for mayor and stay on as an MP, to keep one of their most vulnerable seats safe?
All of this will be chewed over in the weeks ahead. In the meantime, the residents of Batley and Spen may be pleased to see the spotlight move on and a relative sense of calm return.