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In the early hours of this Friday morning it was announced in a ‘shock’ result that Kim Leadbeater had done enough, and that Labour had held on to Batley & Spen.
Kim’s popular local appeal alongside an energetic campaign that was deeply rooted in the local community and omnipresent on the doorsteps thanks to an army of party activists was enough to hold – not win - a seat in that in 2017 backed Labour with a majority just shy of 9,000.
The result comes in the backdrop of an aggressive campaign resulting in thousands of votes, mainly assumed to be from Muslim communities disillusioned with the current direction of the Labour Party and feeling their vote has been taken for granted for too long, going to third parties.
So much so is the alienation with Labour in a constituency it has held since 1997 the leader of the opposition and other key shadow cabinet were practically nowhere to be seen until this morning. One poster for Kim Leadbeater spotted in the constituency made no mention that she was even running for the Labour Party, instead branding her as a semi-independent candidate emphasising her local roots and history of activism in the community.
For all the bemoaning other parties decisions to stand in byelections and run what are often considered to be brutally divisive campaigns, the fact a third party managed to gain such substantial support from their traditional voter base in such a short amount of time should be of concern to the Labour Party.
Other parties have a right to run, and a Labour Party confident in itself and its vision would be able to brush off the challenges they present easily.
Despite this pessimistic tone there are signs in this election of how Keir Starmer can take the party forward. But for now, he sits at a crossroads.
He can set about uniting the party around a shared vision that recognises the merits of the Corbyn era with its sense of optimism that mobilised activists to create grassroots campaigns at community levels, as well as addressing the factors that led to the collapse of seats in the so called “red wall,” most importantly the disastrous promise of a second EU referendum.
Or he can continue on a path towards a New New labour, encouraged by the likes of Mandelson, of which there is simply no appetite, and only serves to alienate huge swatches of the membership built up over the latter half of the decade that are now leaving the party in their masses.
Alongside unity, perhaps the most crucial thing that the party lacks today, and has done since Keir Starmer took over, is a convincing vision of the future that inspires people to vote for them beyond electability and “competence,” both things now in serious doubt.
Batley & Spen was held thanks to a fantastic local candidate and dynamic team of activists around her, not because of, but in spite of, the current policies and direction the party is taking.
It has undeniably been a difficult period for any leader of the party to take over. The pandemic has meant that the traditional means of interacting with voters have been largely cut off, and under a period of national crisis ‘normal politics’ is put on hold.
But this is no excuse for an absence of a compelling narrative for the future. In fact, I’d argue it was the perfect opportunity to develop for bold new policies based around fighting child poverty, strong local communities, a new deal for workers based around a new found appreciation for key workers, a green new deal and community wealth building to create shared prosperity to name but a few – there is no lack of creative and brave ideas out there ready to inspire and unite the country.
Regrettably there are few signs anything like this will happen anytime soon. From the slashing of the Community Organising Unit to rolling back the promise of free social care Labour is being hollowed out of both people and policy.
The Labour Party once found itself in opposition throughout another crisis in the early ’40s, yet by putting forward a bold new vision of renewal based on strong confident principles it won a thumping victory in the next election, and what followed was the creation of the NHS and welfare state that provided the foundations for the 20thcentury.
The No Holding Back Team of Myself, Jon Trickett and Laura Smith believe a reunited party with bold and exiting policies can set the agenda for this century as well. But while stuck in a constant cycle of internal civil war we will continue to be cast out into the wilderness, perhaps forever.
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