What does the win at the Oldham by-election mean for the Labour Party?

Ellen Layzell reports on the win at the Oldham West and Royton by-election in Manchester and the future of the Labour Party.

Edited by Isabel Aruna.

Labour’s win in the Oldham West and Royton by-election that took place on December 3rd has been declared “staggering” by the constituency’s new MP, Jim McMahon. The by-election was triggered by the death of Michael Meacher, a long-serving Labour MP who was also one of the 36 MPs to nominate Jeremy Corbyn as a candidate for Labour leadership. McMahon gained victory with a 10,722-vote majority over UKIP’s John Bickley; even though this was around 4000 votes less than Meacher had initially achieved in May, Labour’s total vote share increased due to a decline in turnout (which was just over 40%). Some have stated this win over UKIP is shocking and have argued that this win shows not only success for Labour, but also for Jeremy Corbyn. Of course, the win comes at a good time for Corbyn, who has been facing criticism from Labour MPs for silencing the more moderate voices within the party and thus possibly alienating the electorate. But does Labour’s win actually suggest great or shocking success?

Oldham West and Royton, a constituency in Greater Manchester, has been a Labour stronghold since its creation in 1997 and the constituencies it replaced were also consistently represented by the Labour party. Michael Meacher stood in Oldham West for 45 years and was known to be towards the left of the Labour party; obviously though the people of Oldham weren’t fazed by his left-leaning tendencies, so were unlikely to vote against the Labour party. Oldham West has a large British Pakistani and British Bangladeshi-origin population which provides solid Labour support; an aspect UKIP leader, Nigel Farage pointed to as part of the reason for UKIP’s inability to penetrate some northern constituencies like Oldham. I never thought I’d say this, but Farage has a point. From this picture, I can’t see anything shocking about Labour’s win – it seems inevitable with the demographic and history of Oldham. However, as the Corbynites of the Labour party are suggesting, one thing this win could demonstrate is that Labour can successfully gain votes from the white working-class. This proposal would both silence critics who argue that the Labour Party has transformed into a party of the middle-class and perhaps would demonstrate Corbyn’s effect on the people voting Labour.

But does this victory really demonstrate the public’s (more specifically the white, working-class members of the public) feelings about Corbyn? Probably not. As Corbyn’s critics are arguing, McMahon was the perfect candidate for the by-election – he is local, well-known and respected by the people of Oldham. Amina Lone, a Manchester Labour councillor, states, “I met people [during the by-election campaign] who just said they were Labour, full stop. Few mentions of Jim, no mention of Corbyn”; this validates the anti-Corbyn suggestions of certain members of the Labour party.

Statements that the high levels of postal voting indicate fraud by Farage have been dismissed as “sour grapes” by Labour’s deputy leader Tom Watson. Indeed, according to The Guardian’s Helen Pidd, “the truth is that even without any postal ballots McMahon would still have had a clear lead over his UKIP rival”.

Even though while Labour didn’t necessarily win outstandingly, the Conservatives faced a massive loss; their vote share was down by 10%, putting them in third position. If this is due to the effects of austerity which are felt so badly in the North, the Conservatives should begin to worry about their performance in the northern marginal seats at the next general election.

But perhaps this result isn’t anything to go by; as Lone points out, there was no national pressure for the people of Oldham in this election, and there’s no guarantee that this result will be replicated in five years. This win was not shocking and shouldn’t have been unexpected, but the Labour party must not rest on this as reassurance that they will do well, or that the Tories will do badly at the next general election.