UK Politics

Oldham by-election: Jeremy Corbyn passes first electoral test

Jim McMahon and Jeremy Corbyn

Jeremy Corbyn needed a boost after the week he has had and the Oldham West and Royton by-election has delivered it.

Whether it will silence his critics in the Parliamentary Labour Party is another question.

But Labour's retention of the seat by a comfortable margin, and a collapse in the Tory vote, does give its leader some grounds for optimism that his brand of socialism is not electoral poison, as some in his party fear - and that he can win votes in traditional Northern working class heartlands, far from his own London powerbase.

Corbyn-sceptic Labour MPs acknowledge it will bolster his position but some fear it will do nothing to resolve the fundamental differences in the party. Some sources go further, saying it will embolden Corbynistas trying to isolate and destroy "moderate" voices in the party.

Labour was not expected to lose the seat, that had been held by Mr Corbyn's friend and political ally Michael Meacher for more than 40 years, before his death.

Having a strong local candidate, in Jim McMahon, who fought a campaign on bread and butter issues such as tax credits and regeneration, rather than the big international issues that have dominated the week at Westminster, also helped.

Pundits proved wrong

Some, including one of Jeremy Corbyn's fiercest internal critics, John Mann, have already identified Mr McMahon as a future Labour leader.

Reports from the campaign trail in Oldham had suggested Labour was haemorrhaging votes among its traditional white working class supporters, horrified by what one commentator called the party's transformation into a "poncified" party of middle class Metropolitan liberals.

This fed directly into Labour fears that their vote in their traditional English strongholds is as brittle as it proved to be in Scotland.

And that UKIP, with its tough line on immigration and appeal to patriotic values, was poised to replace it.

The London-based away-day pundits have been proved wrong, however.

In Quotes

Image copyright Reuters

Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn: "It shows the way we've driven the Tories back on tax credits, on police cuts, on their whole austerity agenda and narrative. It shows just how strong, how deep-rooted and how broad our party, the Labour Party, is for the whole of Britain."

Newly-elected Labour MP Jim McMahon: "This is a truly overwhelming thing for a local lad to represent the town he loves in Westminster is a big, big issue. And I'm very clear I'm sick to death of what the Tories are doing to towns like Oldham. The whole Northern Powerhouse rhetoric is nothing more than write-off of the North to create a poor house. And I'm sick of it. And I think it's about time we showed the Tories that people have had enough."

Labour Deputy leader Tom Watson: "If this was a referendum on Jeremy Corbyn, then he has won. It was a decisive victory with our share of the vote going up. I hope our MPs look at this result."

UKIP leader Nigel Farage: "As a veteran of over 30 by-elections I have never seen such a perverse result. Serious questions need to be asked."

Anti-war Labour MP Paul Flynn: "Real votes by real Oldham people is first public expression of doubt against Cameron's dodgy dossier with his invented bogus battalions."

UKIP sought to make the by-election a referendum on Mr Corbyn, portraying him as an unpatriotic security risk, capitalising on headlines about his alleged equivocation over "shoot-to-kill" in particular.

But the party played down expectations that it could snatch a famous victory - those days appear to be over for now.

Fraud 'risk'

It still has strong support in many parts of the North of England but it is in rebuilding mode after a bruising general election result, which saw it gain four million votes but just one MP, and - as leader Nigel Farage conceded - Oldham's large, Labour-voting Asian population was never going to be a happy hunting ground for his party.

Mr Farage's decision to cry foul after the result was announced - claiming the ballot was rigged - is a brave one.

Oldham is among the areas in the country identified by the Electoral Commission at "greater risk" of electoral fraud.

But complaining about the process after the election could sound like sour grapes.

The first by-election test is a nerve wracking moment for any new party leader. Doubly so for one attempting to take his party in a new, uncharted direction as Jeremy Corbyn is doing.

He will be mightily relieved to have passed it.

The full result

  • Jim McMahon (Labour) - 17,209 (62.11%)
  • John Bickley (UKIP) - 6,487 (23.41%)
  • James Daly (Conservative) - 2,596 (9.37%)
  • Jane Brophy (Liberal Democrat) - 1,024 (3.70%)
  • Simeon Hart (Green Party) - 249 (0.90%)
  • Sir Oink A-Lot (Monster Raving Loony) - 141 (0.51%)

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