Phew! Labour given a lifeline it must now take

It’s a huge relief that at least one Red Wall brick teetered but didn’t fall. Congratulations to Kim Leadbeater, the Labour campaigners and all the progressive voters in Batley and Spen.

A good candidate and organisation can really help but are no substitute for values and strategy.

Because instead of ‘one more heave’, Labour still needs a reality check. This was a very narrow hold in a seat Labour won by almost 9,000 votes just four years ago. Labour is on the defensive and stands little if any chance of winning outright next time. 

After this brush with political death, the party can either limp on or use it as a wakeup call to both radically renew itself and forge better relationships with other progressive parties. 

Genuine renewal looks like a party with a compelling vision of the society it wants to create, a philosophy and policy programme that underpins it, and a strategy to get us there. Labour’s systemic crisis is not Keir Starmer’s fault; it is decades in the making. But in over a year of his leadership, with as little as two years to go before a general election, few of these vital building blocks seem to be in place.

Labour urgently needs to tell the county what it stands for and demonstrate its beliefs through its actions – not to win votes opportunistically, but because it knows what is right.

This demands a policy agenda that will really tackle the climate emergency, provide security in a post-pandemic economy and level up power. Because with the Tories spending big and jobs being created like those at Nissan, progressives need to point out how the people this affects are far from ‘in control’. We need a sense of agency over our own collective futures. We need to power up, not just level up.

The strategy now has to entail a progressive alliance. Last week we set out in All You Need to Know about A Progressive Alliance how this can happen. Last night was further proof of its necessity – not just to win, but because the complexity of the challenges we face demands that reds, greens and liberals work together.

Given the narrowness of the win, there being no Green candidate, by accident not design, was probably crucial. If the Greens had been on the ballot Labour would likely have lost, given in 2019 they polled double Labour’s margin of victory yesterday. Worryingly, there has been precious little reflection on that fact anywhere.

This shows that progressive party competition can be deadly. The onus, though, is not on the Greens or any party to automatically stand aside, but on Labour to give them a reason to consider it. Here a cast-iron guarantee on proportional representation is just the first step on the road to a more radical and plural politics.  

But the result also shows stand-asides are complex. The Lib Dems stood, but who knows how many of their 1000-plus votes would have gone Tory if they hadn’t. Standing aside can work – but not always and not everywhere. This is why it is best negotiated locally, where the knowledge and legitimacy resides. 

And just to note, we don’t object to Labour breaking its own rules to allow Kim to be the candidate despite not being a party member for long enough. We do object to rules being rigorously imposed against Compass members and others who back the best-placed progressive candidate against the Tories – and get immediately expelled. This must change.

A democratic party’s rules should ensure fairness and transparency. They should never block the best-placed progressive candidate from winning a seat. Again, local party members are best positioned to make these calls.

Meanwhile, its worrying for Labour if many Muslim voters broke life-long voting habits by backing George Galloway’s Workers Party. Who knows if they will ever go back? This toxic fusion of nationalism and pseudo-socialism needs to be roundly rejected by all of us.

Against the backdrop of the Chesham and Amersham result, which showed there is no vaccine bounce that can’t be spiked, and of Tory sleaze and incompetence, Labour should be romping home in a mid-term by-election seat it holds if it expects to win alone next time. Instead, Labour got lucky that Boris Johnson didn’t sack Matt Hancock – the hypocrisy was probably another key factor in the result.

Labour threw everything at Batley and Spen in terms of resources and people, including a very good candidate, and just scraped through. It’s heart-warming to see decency win. For Compass, the ‘how’ of politics matters as much as the ‘what’. But the slender win means that unless things change dramatically the seat could easily still fall to the Tories in a general election.

This is a moment for relief and big thinking, not celebration.

Today more than ever, the words of the late Jo Cox ring in our ears: ‘we have more in common’.  More and more people are coming to that conclusion. Hundreds are now joining Compass every month and new local groups are springing up across the country every week.

Compass has a philosophy and we have a strategy. This by-election result proves they are needed more than ever.

Neal Lawson is Executive Director of Compass.

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