Oldham by-election: Life in Labour yet

Labour has won the by-election in Oldham West and Royton, handsomely retaining the safe seat at the end of an emotionally charged week. The 35-year old Leader of Oldham Council, who has been touted as a potential future leader, defied predictions of a tight race to win by 11,000 votes. UKIP, which had hoped to spring another surprise in Labour’s northern heartland, was left in distant second.

The result gives Labour some much-needed breathing space after its divisions were laid bare over Syria. In particular it relieves pressure on Jeremy Corbyn, who was left in the shade by Shadow Foreign Secretary Hilary Benn’s barnstorming speech in the House of Commons on Wednesday and whose approval ratings have slumped to new lows. Mr Corbyn is visiting Manchester today to join McMahon’s celebrations, and will look to claim as much credit as possible for his new MP’s success.

However, the Labour leader’s internal critics have some reason to cheer too. McMahon has built a reputation for pragmatic governance during his time in Oldham, and parts with Corbyn on issues from the monarchy to the Northern Powerhouse. Labour’s North West branches were among some of the most resistant to Corbyn’s candidacy in the leadership election: McMahon’s win, coupled with the growing status of Manchester City Council leader Sir Richard Leese and other local leaders, underscores its image as an alternative power base within Labour.

Two other figures in Labour who will look happily on this result are Scottish Leader Kezia Dugdale and London mayoral candidate Sadiq Khan. Both face electoral tests next May, and McMahon’s win suggests they can skirt around their leader’s abysmal poll numbers. Yet these races will be much tougher affairs. The SNP and the Conservatives are far better organised and funded than UKIP, and will exploit Corbyn’s weaknesses in more systematic ways. It was notable that while much of the media attention was on Oldham, both Education Secretary Nicky Morgan and London Mayor Boris Johnson were repeating David Cameron’s insinuation that Corbyn and his Shadow Chancellor John McDonnell sympathised with terrorists. 

As for how Corbyn will use this result, some speculated beforehand that he might embark on a more combative approach with the parliamentary party, including appointing a more left-wing shadow cabinet. However, Corbyn could just as easily opt to bide his time. With Head of Communications Seamus Milne exerting greater authority on operations, the first priority appears to be enhancing the back office. Such an approach could bring greater coherence to Corbyn’s strategy as he prepares for a long battle with both internal and external opponents. 

Photograph: Peter Marshall

Larry Smith

Hill & Knowlton Strategies Search