Labour’s spin machine has been in overdrive since last Thursday’s Oldham West and Royton by-election victory. With the left and right of the party both claiming responsibility for the result, whilst simultaneously trying to discredit one another, the last few days have been full of hyperbole and wild assertions.
Supporters of Jeremy Corbyn are claiming that the win – one of the few that the Labour leader has enjoyed since his election to the top post in September – shows that the right-wing media and pessimistic pollsters were wrong. A landslide in Oldham, they say, indicates that the public isn’t petrified by the prospect of Corbyn as Prime Minister. The Labour moderates, on the other hand, are using the victory of Jim McMahon – a candidate whose views firmly occupy the centre ground – to suggest that a left-wing candidate would have alienated the local community, some of whom have openly voiced reservations about Corbyn’s leadership. They claim that it was only McMahon’s distance from Corbyn that won him the seat.
The truth is that both hypotheses are wrong, as they are both reading far too much into a by-election result that, by and large, was a foregone conclusion. Despite the frenzy whipped up by the press, UKIP never had a serious chance of winning in Oldham. Not only is a large percentage of the community (despite the grievances of some) fiercely loyal to Labour due to the area’s traditional ties to the party, the constituency is also too ethnically diverse to have provided UKIP with a real chance of winning. UKIP may have gobbled up a few disaffected Labour supporters and increased their share of the vote by 2.7%, but they were always going to struggle to achieve more than 30% of the overall vote and push Labour below the 50% threshold.
The real reason for Labour’s success is simple: Jim McMahon. If his victory proved anything it’s that the problems and worries currently gripping the hallways of Westminster have failed to trouble the people of Oldham, whose minds lie firmly on local issues and who will best solve them. A former leader of Oldham Metropolitan Borough Council and a familiar face in the local area, McMahon was always going to win the votes of the people that he has served for over a decade. His personal political beliefs, or those of Corbyn, played little part in his success. What mattered most to the local community was that they were voting for one of their own.
Of course, Labour deserve credit for putting McMahon forward in the first place. Instead of parachuting in an ‘rising star’ who could benefit from one of the safest seats in the country, the Oldham West and Royton Constituency Labour Party members made a sensible choice – choosing a candidate who already possed a wide-ranging appeal amongst members of the local community.
McMahon’s win is a victory for his local community, not a vote of confidence for Corbyn or a sign that Blairism is back. However, with widespread local and devolved elections only five months away, the first real test for the Labour leader is fast approaching. By May, Corbyn will have been in the role for almost eight months and a backlash of some variety – either against him or the current government – could well materialise.
Whilst it is difficult to gain much from one standalone election, whether for a local council or a seat in the House of Commons, the same cannot be said for widespread elections such as those that are scheduled to take place next May. On several occasions, impressive results in local elections have proven to be good indicators of the electorate’s general mood towards each political party. Two of the most notable examples occurred in 1983 and 1987, when local election victories for the Conservatives were turned into back-to-back general election successes.
Indeed, the results in May could well point towards the scale of Corbyn’s popularity across the nation. Despite the party’s disappointing result in the Oldham by-election, the threat from UKIP – particularly in Labour’s northern heartlands – has not gone away. UKIP’s ability to sit comfortably in second place in 44 Labour-held constituencies should worry Corbyn, as should the apathy and disillusionment that characterises many of his most comfortably held seats. All 20 of the constituencies that saw the lowest turnout of voters at the last general election were won by Labour, and eight of those saw UKIP achieve second-place finishes thanks to sizeable increases in their share of the vote.
The last two elections – the general and the European – showcased the inroads that UKIP has also made in Wales. In the former, Labour won its second-lowest share of the country’s vote since 1918, whilst in the 2014 European elections UKIP finished in either first or second place in every council area, beating Labour in Conwy, Denbighshire, Flintshire, Powys, the Vale of Glamorgan and Wrexham. UKIP’s recent success in Wales, traditionally a guaranteed vote-winner for Labour, could burgeon again next May.
Add to this the Scottish National Party’s dominance north of the border and you can see why the threat facing Corbyn is so real. Whilst we can draw little from one by-election result less than three months into the new leader’s reign, we will certainly be able to evaluate Corbyn’s tenure in six months’ time. With his opponents inside the party looking for any excuse to stage a putsch, he has a lot of work to do if he is to make sure that Labour answer its critics and calms the electorate’s fears.