Shortly before the Batley and Spen by election on July 1st, Prospect magazine carried an article on June 24th, a week before the actual vote featuring Times journalist Rachel Sylvester. This had a memorable headline proclaiming LABOUR IS ON COURSE FOR A THIRD SUCCESSIVE BY ELECTION DEFEAT, Ms Sylvester had ignored the classic football slogan, No Game Is Over Till The Final Whistle. While the Labour victory solves few problems for the party, this article threw a lurid light on the Commentariat who repeatedly do not understand how by elections work. In this Constituency, the comms have form for not getting what is going on – as my article on Maurice Cowlings book in the Labour section points out.
Assuming Labour would lose, MS Sylvester managed to advise Starmer to be clear, not have a Policy Review, and “should dump the Corbyn policy platform that was rejected so clearly by the voters at the last General Election – including individually popular policies such as free tuition fees”. While Corbyn was unpopular, his policies were not, and it is a historical fact that even in 2019 Corbyn got a higher vote share (32.9%) than Brown in 2010 (29%) or Miliband (31.5%). Change the leader, but not the policies, should be the message. Having a Policy Review is a way to sort the wheat from the chaff. What happened in Hartlepool was different from Chesham and Amersham and very different from Batley and Spen.
As Cambridge Historian Maurice Cowling demonstrated Batley and Spen has form for challenging observers to look at the facts, which proved a challenge. At the 1919 by election, the Labour vote went up by about 2500 to around 12,000, so Cowling and others concluded this was the reason their candidate won. But the real reason was that in this Liberal constituency, there had been one Liberal at the 1918 General Election and he took all the Liberal votes, but at the 1919 by election two Liberals stood, one supporting Asquith and the other Lloyd George. They split the Liberal vote and the Labour man came top to win a short lived victory. In 1922 when there was again only one Liberal, the Lloyd George candidate having vanishes, the Asquith Liberal took all the Liberal votes and Labour lost. A Labour break through it was not. Looking only at the by election led Cowling up the garden path.