While much of the coverage of the Syria vote, focused on Labour in disarray, even a resounding by-election victory in Oldham West and Royston has not brought unity, with an internal scrabble over whether this was a victory for Corbyn or for Labour moderates.
The first by-election of a new parliament is always seen as a test of the strength of the Opposition, and the scale of the Labour victory (which no one, pundit or party member, really predicted) has been heralded by Corbyn as a “vote of confidence in the Labour party”. After a week from hell, with Labour MPs receiving threats of deselection (and physical violence in some cases) for the way they voted on Syria air strikes, Oldham West would have provided ample opportunity to give Corbyn and McDonnell a migraine to at least into the New Year.
Labour ‘moderates’ – the new pejorative term for those who backed candidates other than Corbyn in the leadership election – will be equally happy with the by election result. The pro-business leader of Oldham Council Jim McMahon would not have been the Momentum candidate by any stretch of the imagination, and indeed fell out spectacularly with Ed Miliband for supporting the Northern Powerhouse initiative. A resounding victory of 17,322 votes (62.3% of the vote) will hearten those who might have been on the verge of resigning their membership that there was a place for them yet in the Party. Of course, McMahon was bequeathed a 15,000 majority from Michael Meacher, but this does not detract from his achievement; his campaign was a hyperlocal one, such as his pledge to renovate all of the war memorials in the borough.
UKIP’s popularity in the region meant that fears were running high that we could have seen a repeat of the 2014 Heywood and Middleton by-election, where the contest was run so close that UKIP came within 700 votes of taking victory from Labour. But in the end, UKIP limped to second place, as Oldham’s south Asian voters (around 20% of the electorate) failed to switch from Labour. Little wonder, given reports that UKIP were driving around Royston yesterday playing ‘White Christmas.’
Reports from the ground showed that Corbyn wasn’t a name that featured on the doorstep, and the campaign was very much all ‘Jim, Jim, Jim, Jim’. This soon into a parliament, national lessons should not be drawn from by-elections – a particularly acute lesson for Corbyn’s Labour Party who have yet to clarify what their national message is. Even if we were to draw comparisons, the only coherent lesson is that candidates from the right of Labour (McMahon backed Kendall in the leadership election) are the most palatable to voters. It might seem obvious to those in the public affairs industry, but such a concept would be an anathema in the ‘new politics’ of Corbyn’s administration.
And yet Corbyn might still be right – Oldham West was a vote of confidence in Labour as a party. He should realise however that the party is a significantly broader church than he would have it.