Before the result was announced the pundits were building up for a diminished Labour performance because of the perception of their new found handicap- their new leader. The BBC’s This Week had a live by-election special to cover the live result unfolding with studio guests from the three main political parties and the Lib Dems. Indeed the result announcement was prefixed by analysis by Professor John Curtice from the University of Strathclyde outlining what would be a good and bad result for Labour. The result surprised all the pundits and the media.
For weeks the media had been billing the Oldham West and Royton by-election as a potential UKIP victory as the party had replaced the Tories second placed party in many of Labour’s northern heartlands, and the Labour Party under Corbyn has been wrongly perceived as unelectable. Take the example of the Times. Politics Reporter Callum Jones wrote a piece entitled ‘Labour is counting the cost in Oldham’, which, despite saying that Labour would retain the seat, implied that the margin of victory would be much diminished because of reports that people didn’t see Corbyn as a viable Labour leader.
The result came in and it was overwhelming and disproved all of the pundits predictions. Labour’s Jim McMahon took the seat with 62.1% of the vote, which was up from the 54.8% won by the late Michael Meacher. Before the result was announced Professor Curtice had pointed out that opposition parties in by-elections tend to pick up around 7% at the expense of the governing party. This proved to be continued in Oldham as the increase for Labour was 7.3%, however this immediately disproves the idea that Labour under Corbyn cannot win. Surely if Corbyn’s Labour was unelectable UKIP would have made substantial inroads, which they did not.
The increased support for the Labour candidate has now started being attributed to the fact that McMahon was a popular local figure and that he won despite Corbyn’s leadership. If we take this as true for the sake of argument, what is these media pundits point? In that case Corbyn now knows that in order to succeed Labour candidates in elections need to have a strong local profile as well as an active and energised campaign. If Corbyn’s supporters, many of whom have since joined the Labour Party as full members, can provide the energised grassroots campaign for the candidates and Labour stops choosing candidates that are parachuted into safe seats Corbyn will become Prime Minister. All yesterday’s result proved is that if a candidate who is respected by the local community is supported by an organised campaign, Labour will win.
But the other aspect of the night’s events was that of UKIP’s response. Deputy leader Paul Nuttall dabbled in a bit of casual racism, UKIP leader Nigel Farage moaned about the nature of the process, and the party has not backed down in its accusations of foul-play by Labour. Specifically Paul Nuttall accused Labour of dabbling in “dangerous identity politics” because Labour had been successful in drumming up support in the constituency’s Pakistani and Bangladeshi communities Considering that UKIP’s appeal is primarily aimed at white working class people that are worried by influxes of immigrants, the fact that their deputy leader of UKIP is complaining about identity politics is hilarious.
Nigel Farage has since been on Twitter and breakfast television to complain that the postal voting system was “bent”, citing it as another example after fraud in Tower Hamlets and Birmingham of electoral foul-play. There is no evidence that Farage’s claims are truthful but UKIP have decided to shift the focus of the by-election away from Labour’s victory and toward their narrative of UKIP facing off against the establishment in a broken electoral system.
In all fairness this argument isn’t wrong as First-Past-The-Post is an undemocratic system that creates a two party system, however this is not the case with postal voting. Nuttall actually went as far as saying that having people voting en masse by postal vote was undemocratic, which is odd considering that postal votes give people more options to express their opinions. Indeed Nuttall and Farage were complaining that the election was “over before it began” because postal votes had been so numerous but I genuinely can’t see what is the problem. We should be making it easier for people to vote not harder; if people want to vote by post so they can get it out the way and go back to their lives why shouldn’t we let them do that.
The message of the Oldham by-election was clearly that a Labour candidate with an energised base and a good local reputation can both hold off UKIP and get the vote out. This should be seen by Labour as a positive and not the negative that right-wing elements of the media claim it to be. If the ‘new politics’ that Jeremy Corbyn is constantly talking about involves active grassroots campaigns and the inability to win with candidates parachuted into safe seats I am all for it. Labour can win under Jeremy Corbyn, the next step is winning a marginal by the same means.