Polls in Batley and Spen open this morning as Westminster holds its breath for what could be a shattering moment for Labour.
The party has held the seat for almost a quarter of a century. A June 18 poll put it on just 41%, 6 points behind the Tories. Interestingly, support for Labour has not dropped since the last general election, but it seems unlikely extra votes have been grabbed in the dying days of the campaign due to downward pressure from George Galloway’s Workers Party, which holds onto an impressive 6% share of the vote, there is also the strong possibility the Tories have picked up votes from previously disinterested voters as successive Labour missteps and mishaps have emerged over the course of the campaign.
Islam advocate Galloway possesses a structural advantage. Some parts of the West Yorkshire seat are majority Muslim. According to the 2011 census, 52.2% of Batley East were of that faith, while 30.5% of the population are Muslim in Batley West.
With Labour onto a hiding following May’s disastrous local and regional election results, which saw archetypal red wall seat, Hartlepool turn blue, leader Keir Starmer is under tremendous pressure.
The Times reports today that deputy leader, Angela Rayner has sent out her people to canvass MPs.
“There’s definitely been people sounding out the possibility [of running for leader] – it’s clear she’d easily reach 40 nominations – and urging her to run if the worst happens in Batley,” a close ally told the paper.
The former trade union rep and single mum is seen as a more moderate force within the party, but Corbynite MPs are said to be open to her replacing Starmer.
“Angela’s people are speaking to a number of comrades. Sections of the party would back her without doubt,” said one hard left MP.
Rayner would need support from around 40 Labour members of Parliament, 20% of the party, to force a leadership contest, which would be a stunning turn of events. The party is notorious for allowing lame-duck leaders to stay in post. The historically far more successful Tories are much more prone to ousting their chiefs.
The Telegraph report however that Starmer is staying put whatever happens in Batley, where the candidate he parachuted in (rarely a wise move) Kim Leadbeater is struggling.
“Keir is not going to resign,” said Starmer’s spokesman on Wednesday.
“What the British people are worried about at the moment is their jobs, their kids and the future of their country, and that is exactly what Keir is focused on.
“That’s what he will spend the summer talking about. And he will take the Labour party through into the next general election and back into government.”
Labour members increasingly want to boot out the party’s boss. A Sky poll released yesterday found that two-fifths of Labour members are sick of Starmer, but the field of replacements has already created headaches. Manchester mayor, Andy Burnham is far and away the most popular option with 42% backing, but he is not an MP and therefore ineligible. The nearest rival sitting in the Commons is Yvette Cooper on 35%.
Strikingly, Rayner, who has cultivated an outsized public profile over the past 18 months after annihilating Corbynite candidates for the deputy leadership, only has the backing of 12% of members and yet MPs are said to be open to her replacing Starmer.
“The fact is Keir’s team messed up so badly after Hartlepool that they can’t put it back in the box. Loads of MPs are scared about their seats. You can’t control an MP when they’re scared about their seat,” said a Rayner supporter.
A Starmer insider said: “It would be very silly for Angela to try anything. She has been a constructive presence.”
“But, like many people, she is on manoeuvres and is at risk of listening to the wrong voices.”
However, Rayner’s office denied allegations she’s coordinating a fledgling leadership campaign.
“Anybody doing that is not doing it under instructions from Angela or with Angela’s backing. Angela is focused entirely on her jobs,” said a spokesperson for the deputy leader seemingly intent on saying Angela as much as possible.