'Too close to call': Vote count starts for Batley and Spen by-election

2 July 2021, 01:07 | Updated: 2 July 2021, 01:16

A voter leaves a polling station after placing her ballot in the Batley and Spen by-election
A voter leaves a polling station after placing her ballot in the Batley and Spen by-election. Picture: PA
Nick Hardinges

By Nick Hardinges

The Tories have insisted it's "too close to call" as the vote count began in the Batley and Spen by-election, which could see the Labour seat overturned.

Sir Keir Starmer's leadership of the party is likely to come under intense pressure if the traditionally 'Red Wall' constituency turns blue on Friday.

Labour currently enjoys a majority of more than 3,000 in the seat. However, the Conservatives are the bookies' favourite to follow up their win in Hartlepool in May.

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The winner is set to be declared early on Friday morning, with one Labour source predicting a "long night" for the party and another saying the campaign had been shambolic.

Meanwhile, deputy leader Angela Rayner denied any takeover bid if the party loses the West Yorkshire seat.

A spokesman for Sir Keir insisted the leader will not resign if Labour fails to hold on to Batley and Spen. However, polls suggest as many as four in 10 party members would want him out if the seat turns blue.

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Prior to the arrival of George Gallaway, the by-election appeared to be a straightforward head-to-head between Labour's Kim Leadbeater and the Tories' Ryan Stephenson.

However, the veteran campaigner's decision to stand in the constituency gave those behind Labour's campaign a difficult hurdle to clear.

Mr Galloway said he was directly targeting Labour voters in an explicit attempt to oust Sir Keir during a campaign that became increasingly bitter.

A Labour source said: "Galloway's nasty campaign has hit our vote while the Tories are picking up 2019 independent votes, and places that were starting to look more positive for us seem to have swung back.

"It's going to be a long night."

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One Labour frontbench MP predicted a 6,000-vote majority for the Tories and described the campaign as an "utter shambles" with "loads of switchers" to Boris Johnson's party.

Ms Leadbeater referred to the occasionally ugly nature of the contest in a message on Twitter.

"There have been many highs of this election campaign but sadly there have also been some unacceptable lows," she said.

"The acts of intimidation and violence by some who have come here with the sole aim of sowing division has been deeply upsetting to witness.

"Whatever the result tonight, the first priorities of the new MP must be to bring our community together and start working for local people in every part of the constituency I am proud to call my home."

Tory insiders played down expectations as polls closed, insisting it was "too close to call".

A Conservative source said it was "always was going to be tough - we didn't win in 2019 and we lost by over 100,000 votes in the West Yorkshire mayoral race".

"On top of that, governing parties don't normally win by-elections," the source added - although Hartlepool showed Mr Johnson's party was capable of making further cracks in Labour's northern 'Red Wall'.

Mr Stephenson said: "Whatever the result, you proved that more and more local people are ready for change."

Mr Galloway said: "One thing is certain: it's curtains for Keir."

The Batley and Spen contest saw clashes between Mr Galloway's Workers Party and Labour supporters.

The most controversial arguments centred on the parties' stance on international issues, including Kashmir and Palestine, as they battled to secure votes in the area's Asian communities.

The nature of the campaign was particularly sensitive as Ms Leadbeater is the sister of former Batley and Spen MP Jo Cox, who was murdered in the constituency in 2016.

Labour activists said they were pelted with eggs and kicked in the head on the campaign trail at the weekend and West Yorkshire Police said an 18-year-old man from Batley was arrested on suspicion of assault in connection with an attack on canvassers.

A defeat for Labour would lead to further questions about Sir Keir's position, although it is unclear if any challenger would be able to secure the support of the 40 MPs needed to trigger a leadership contest.

Votes being counted for the Batley and Spen by-election
Votes being counted for the Batley and Spen by-election. Picture: PA

The Times reported an individual described as a "close ally" of Ms Rayner as saying: "There's definitely been people sounding out the possibility - it's clear she'd easily reach 40 nominations - and urging her to run if the worst happens in Batley."

Ms Rayner described the suggestion as "news to me", while her spokesman said anyone gauging support is "not doing it under instructions from Angela or with Angela's backing" and she is "focused entirely on her jobs".

One senior Labour MP suggested Sir Keir would be given until the Labour conference in September to turn the situation around if there was a defeat in Batley and Spen.

The West Yorkshire constituency has voted Labour since 1997, but a Survation poll published last week put the Tories on 47 per cent, up 11 per cent from the 2019 general election, while Labour was on 43 per cent.

The by-election was triggered after Tracy Brabin, who won the seat for Labour in 2019 with a 3,525 majority over the Conservatives, was elected as the mayor of West Yorkshire in May.