Things could be bleak for Labour in the Batley and Spen by-election this Thursday. Throughout an ugly and dispiriting campaign all round, George Galloway’s entrance into the race has threatened to prevent a Labour victory. If the party loses, Starmer’s position will be on even shakier ground. He might even be deposed. But if that were to happen, it would be a mistake for Labour, one felt for years to come.
Keir Starmer has made a lot of errors since becoming leader of the Labour party. He seemed to assume that just being presentable and not Jeremy Corbyn would be enough to see his party rise in the polls again. For a while, it worked. Yet his inability to find a way to challenge the Tories on anything to do with the Covid crisis, combined with Boris Johnson getting a Brexit deal that Starmer then backed, conspired to end the momentum he had managed to create. Labour started to tank in the polls earlier this year; the Conservatives have led every single nationwide poll since January 28.
Yet Starmer remains far and away the best shot Labour have at beating the Tories at the next election. Admittedly, this has less to do with Starmer’s inherent qualities than with how bad all of the other options are. Angela Rayner may be effective on social media but would she be any better than Starmer at tackling Labour’s core problems? What about Rebecca Long-Bailey? Most of the public would see her as Labour going backwards towards a return to Corbynism. Who else is there with a realistic shot of winning a Labour leadership contest in 2021? Andy Burnham isn’t in the parliamentary party, so he can’t even run.
Starmer is the best leader Labour have right now. Remember that when he took over Labour were regularly more than 20 points behind the Tories. Yes, he underestimated the challenge of winning a majority again and didn’t change his party enough when the wind was behind him, but it’s hard to see anyone else in the 2020 contest having done a better job of it by this stage. The other candidates appeared to think that with Corbyn gone, Labour’s old vote would drift back, simple as that.
It may be that if Labour get rid of Starmer in the aftermath of a Batley and Spen defeat, they effectively concede the next election. The party might get unbelievably lucky somehow and a range of factors could allow them to form a government at the next election, of course. We live in very odd political times and no result should be written off. But it is still difficult to envisage a set of circumstances in which they wouldn’t be better off with Starmer in charge than with any of the other existing options.
Some might chime in here with the old adage, ‘The public makes up its mind about politicians and rarely changes that opinion once it has been collectively made’. Yet it is often forgotten how odd the set of circumstances in which Starmer became Labour leader really were. The Covid crisis would have hurt any opposition leader. The party was also in much worse a position post-Corbyn than even the most ardent anti-Corbynites realised.
Sadly, Labour are now in such crisis that either losing two by-elections in quick succession in long-held Labour seats will see Starmer quit or removed; or leave him clinging desperately onto the job, while the left of the party patiently wait for Labour to lose another election so that they can take over again.
Of course, Labour losing Batley and Spen has now been built up so much by the media, becoming the dominant narrative, that if the party manage to somehow win the day, Starmer needs to use the victory to completely reset his leadership. He needs to break Labour out of the navel-gazing phase it has been in since the 2010 general election result and connect with the electorate again. Post-Covid, Starmer needs to find ways to oppose and attack this Tory government that will cut through. If Labour wins on Thursday, a lot of luck will be involved – Starmer can’t afford to waste this opportunity if it comes to him.