John Bilton analyses the situation after last Thursday’s by-election
Finally, some good news. Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn has had a terrible three weeks, facing an increasingly divided party, open criticism from his shadow cabinet, and a loss on the Syria vote on 30th November. Many people thought that Labour would lose, or at least significantly reduce its majority, in the Oldham West by-election on 3rd December. That would have been disastrous – Oldham has traditionally been a safe seat for Labour (the late Michael Meacher won the seat in May with a majority of almost 15,000 votes).
As it was, Labour actually increased its share of votes, from 54.8% in May to 62.2%. UKIP, which was predicted to come a close second, achieved a measly 23.8%. Turnout was 40.2%, pretty regular for a by-election. This leaves three winners from this: Corbyn, Oldham, and the Tories.
Mr Corbyn has been given some breathing room. For now, his critics have been quietened; the Labour leader is clearly not as toxic as his enemies would suggest. Ironically, the Labour leader hardly campaigned in Oldham West; he was busy wrangling his party in Westminster. Jim McMahon, Oldham West’s new MP, is about as far from Jeremy Corbyn as is possible: he left school at 16 with “ropey” qualifications and worked in a supermarket, before becoming a technical apprentice. He is a pro-business centrist, who believes that private enterprise (and thus increased tax receipts) is the key to Oldham’s prosperity. He is fiercely popular in Oldham, and was elected as spokesman for every Labour councillor in Britain last year, at just 33.
So, Oldham now has a promising new MP. Meanwhile, UKIP have given a masterclass in how to lose badly. Soon after the by-election results were announced, Nigel Farage took to Twitter to declare that he had “evidence from an impeccable source” that Oldham’s postal voting was “bent”. He went on to complain that “ethnic changes” had an effect on results, telling Radio 4 that “they can’t speak English, they have never heard of UKIP or the Conservative Party, they haven’t even heard of Jeremy Corbyn.” “They” presumably signifies voters of Bangladeshi and Pakistani origin, who sent in large numbers of postal votes, nearly all for Labour. He has filed a complaint over the way postal voting has been handled. Perhaps he would prefer it if only UKIP supporters were allowed to vote? Ironically, even if all postal votes were discounted, Labour would still have won the seat. UKIP’s share of the vote was so low because the demographic it relied on – middle-aged, working class, white former Labour supporters – stayed at home instead voting.
The last winners of the by-election are the Tories. UKIP, which it considers more of a threat than Labour at the moment, especially with an EU referendum looming, lost badly. Mr Farage is swiftly leaking what little credibility he has. And Mr Corbyn now seems more likely to remain as Labour leader for time being – which, the Tories believe, can only be good news for them. While Murdoch’s media machine grinds on with its anti-Corbyn propaganda, Cameron may feel more secure, but he shouldn’t get complacent. This election, chalked up by many as a Corbyn victory, may be another sign that there is something yet to fear in Labour.
Featured image credit: Wikimedia Commons