| 28 May 2024, Tuesday |

Britain’s parties fight for votes in northern England

In a new test of whether British Prime Minister Boris Johnson can extend his Conservative Party’s dominance over historically opposition-supporting areas, voters in a northern English region cast ballots on Thursday.

Batley and Spen, which has voted for the opposition Labor Party since 1997, could hand Johnson another victory, as his pro-Brexit stance and commitment to address inequality has won over many northern English voters.

It could also heap pressure on Labor, which has struggled to connect with voters under the leadership of Keir Starmer and lost a similar contest in northern England’s Hartlepool in May, prompting many to question whether he should stay in post.

The race is expected to be close.

The Conservative government is battling a slew of scandals but overseeing a successful COVID-19 vaccination programme. Labor is increasingly divided but is represented by local candidate Kim Leadbeater, sister of its former lawmaker, Jo Cox, who was murdered by a neo-Nazi in the constituency in 2016.

A spokesman for the Labor leader played down expectations for a victory in the Batley, saying “this election was always going to be challenging for us”.

“We know that we have got to prove ourselves to the people of Batley and Spen and demonstrate we’re listening and that we’re working for them, and that we’ve never taken the people of Batley and Spen for granted,” the spokesman said.

Asked if Starmer would resign if Labor loses, he added: “No Keir has been absolutely clear that this is a four-year path to get back into power and he is determined to lead the party into the next general election and to take us back into government.”

Conservative lawmakers said they were hopeful their party could take the parliamentary seat, capitalizing on the Labor vote being split by firebrand leftist George Galloway, leader of the Workers Party of Britain.

“My head says yes (we will win) but it will be close,” said one Conservative lawmaker.

The results will be announced in the early hours of Friday.

Britain’s 2016 vote to leave the European Union has transformed the country’s political landscape, with the Conservatives, traditionally the party of more affluent southern areas openly targeting voters in the post-industrial north.

Some in the party fear Johnson’s strategy to “level up” Britain by tackling its geographical inequalities might be alienating southern English voters after the party suffered a defeat in an election on the outskirts of London last month.

But so-called by-elections offer only partial evidence of trends, pollsters say, and the poll in Batley and Spen may only show a small part of a wider political picture, especially after the race was tarnished by accusations of dirty tricks.

The Muslim vote has come to the fore, with Galloway challenging Labor over its stance on the Palestinians. Labor was criticized for producing a leaflet which featured a photo of Johnson with Indian leader Narendra Modi, saying: “Don’t risk a Tory who is not on your side.”

The party said it stood by the leaflet.

  • Reuters