By Elizabeth Piper
LONDON (Reuters) – Voters in a northern English region were casting their ballots on Thursday in a new test of whether British Prime Minister Boris Johnson can extend his Conservative Party’s control over traditionally opposition-supporting areas.
The constituency Batley and Spen, which has voted for the opposition Labour Party since 1997, could hand another victory to Johnson, whose pursuit of Brexit and promise to tackle inequality has won over many voters in northern England.
It could also heap pressure on Labour, 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. Labour 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 Labour 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 Labour 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, capitalising on the Labour 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 Labour over its stance on the Palestinians. Labour was criticised 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.
(Reporting by Elizabeth Piper; Editing by Andrew Heavens)