Heads right wins, tails Corbyn loses

Oldham West highlights the continuing divisions within the Labour Party, writes Eddie Ford

This was supposed to be the day of reckoning, or at least the beginning of the end, for Jeremy Corbyn. The Oldham West and Royton by-election would show that he was an electoral liability, no matter how popular with Labour Party members and supporters. For Nigel Farage, not to mention the Labour right and the Tory press, December 3 was going to be a “referendum” on Corbyn’s leadership.

In which case, he can now claim a certain vindication. Far from the United Kingdom Independence Party making a breakthrough, as many were predicting or hoping, Jim McMahon (“I’m just Jim from Oldham”) increased Labour’s share of the vote by 7.3% - getting a comfortable 10,722 majority over Ukip, which only upped its percentage by 2.8%. The real losers on the day were the Tories, who came a distant third on 9.4% (2,596), representing a 9.6% drop in support - no wonder they have kept quiet. As for the Liberal Democrats and the Greens, they barely registered on 3.7% and 0.9% respectively. Frankly, we should be demanding the purging of all the 11 pro-war members of the shadow cabinet

Yes, true, at 40.26% the turnout was considerably lower than the 59.6% in the general election - meaning that McMahon secured fewer votes than the late Michael Meacher (“Tony Benn’s vicar on earth”): ie, 17,209 compared to 23,630. But for a by-election, however, it was a high turnout - particularly when you remember that three years ago his Labour colleague, Lucy Powell, won the Manchester Central by-election with a mere 18.2% of the vote (believed to be the lowest ever in a by-election since World War II).

Very unwisely, Farage immediately mouthed off about the fact that 7,115 of the total 27,791 ballots cast were postal votes - portraying it as ethnic block vote. The Ukip leader claimed that he had “evidence from an impeccable source” that the postal vote was “bent” - in one case, he said, a ballot box containing “several hundred votes” was “99% Labour”.1 Obviously suspicious. Farage went on to say that “serious questions need to be asked” about the “perverse” result in Oldham, complaining that “effectively the electoral process is now dead” in constituencies which have large numbers of ethnic-minority voters who do not speak English. More bluntly, the ever charming Paul Nuttall, Ukip’s deputy leader, told the BBC: “You’ve got to ask yourself, is this Britain or is this Harare?”

However, a week later, Farage still had not made any formal complaint about the allegations. What happened to the “impeccable” evidence, Nigel? Suzanne Evans, Ukip’s deputy chairperson, was a lot nearer the truth when she said the party risked coming across as “bad losers” - or in the words of Tom Watson, Labour’s deputy leader, the complaints were “sour grapes”.

Dirty tricks

Standing alongside McMahon on the steps at Chadderton town hall, Corbyn celebrated the “incredible” result, citing it as proof that Labour’s support was “strong, broad and deep-rooted” - and a spokesperson for the leader quickly declared that Oldham makes “nonsense” of the claim that a Labour Party led by him is unelectable. Ken Livingstone could not help mocking those critics who insist that the “white working class didn’t like Jeremy” and never will - adding that anti-Corbyn MPs might start to “rethink” if it looks like he has a chance of winning the next general election: then “they will all want jobs” and thus “get in line”.2

The jubilation of the Labour leadership and its allies is certainly understandable. Sections of the press had anticipated humiliation for Corbyn. For instance, the print edition of The Times on December 4 confidently told us: “Labour is counting the cost in Oldham”3 - stating that, though Labour was “on course to avoid defeat”, McMahon’s majority was “expected to be substantially reduced”.4 The same journalist had to hastily write a follow-up online article entitled, “Labour holds on to Oldham with ease”. Similarly, the supposedly Labour-loyal Daily Mirror informed its readers that Corbyn was leading the party to disaster in Oldham - “Dark night of the polls for Jeremy”, predicting that Labour’s majority would be slashed to just 1,000.5

There is other good news for Corbyn. Apart from the fact that two-thirds of the parliamentary party backed his opposition to air strikes in Syria, an Evening Standard/YouGov poll showed that Sadiq Khan - Labour’s London mayoral candidate - is well ahead of his unpleasant Tory rival, Zac Goldsmith, currently holding a 53%-47% lead. Here is another election that Corbyn will not fear too much.

Having said all that, whilst Oldham might have slightly lessened the chance of a Blairite coup in the near future, it has also highlighted the deep and growing divisions within the party - a state of permanent civil war and open clashes. For the right it was always going to be the case that when a Labour candidate succeeds, or otherwise does well, that will be in spite of Corbyn - and when a Labour candidates fails, or otherwise does badly, that will be because of Corbyn. Heads the right wins, tails Corbyn loses. If he were to walk on water, they would dismiss it as a cheap stunt.

This, of course, is exactly what happened over Oldham. Almost pathologically anti-Corbyn, Simon Danczuk MP argued that the Oldham win had little or nothing to do with the Labour leader - though you can guarantee, if Labour had done poorly, that would have had everything to do with Corbyn. Naturally, the right attributed the victory entirely to McMahon’s unimpeachable ‘moderate’ credentials - a man “devastatingly and irretrievably sensible in his political outlook”.6 A close supporter of McMahon, a Labour councillor in Greater Manchester, described Labour’s by-election strategy as: “Jim, Jim, Jim-Jim-Jim. No mention of the other fella”. Therefore the campaign literature focused heavily on McMahon’s local achievements: turning the old town hall into a cinema and restaurant complex, renovating all of the war memorials in the borough, etc. Tellingly, whilst Corbyn does not appear to know the words to the national anthem and is hostile to Nato, McMahon is “proud” to have received an OBE from the queen - having nothing but admiration and respect for the constitutional monarchy, the armed forces …

Meanwhile, Ian Warren, an election analyst who worked for Labour before the general election, said his own polls found the Labour leader had a negative rating of minus 27% in Greater Manchester as a whole - “this is Jim’s victory,” he tweeted.

There is no doubting that McMahon’s local popularity contributed to his good vote. But it would far too simplistic to leave it there. After all, Ukip plastered Corbyn’s face all over its literature - “You’d have to be living on Mars to not be aware that Jeremy Corbyn is leader of the Labour Party”, as one shadow cabinet member put it. Indeed, Ukip was accused of “dirty tricks” for handing out a leaflet made to look just like a Labour one - carrying a big picture of Corbyn and bearing in red the headline: “Labour News: keeping you up to date on the policies of Labour’s new leadership”.7 Underneath the headline, we have four bullet points telling us that “Jeremy Corbyn’s Labour Party” favours “uncontrolled, mass immigration”, “axing our armed forces”, “abolishing the monarchy”, and will “hand over the Falklands to Argentina”. Only if you look at the very small print at the bottom of the leaflet do you see the name of the Ukip candidate, alerting you to the fact that it is actually published by Nigel Farage’s party.

Ukip must have thought this was a good wheeze, as we all know that Corbyn is regarded with contempt by the (white) working class - don’t we? Unhappily for Ukip though, it did not have the intended effect of scaring voters en masse into their tender hands, terrified at the immediate abolition of the monarchy and standing army. If anything, it might even have worked a bit in the opposition direction - just making the association between Corbyn and Labour, and hence McMahon, more overt.

One fairly heartening lesson that the left, both inside and outside the Labour Party, can take from Oldham is that the anti-Corbyn forces stretching from the Labour right to Ukip and then the press simply did not have a clue about what is really going on at ground level in Oldham - they clearly genuinely thought Labour, and Corbyn, was in trouble. They fell for their own propaganda, of which perhaps the most absurd example can be found in Rafael Behr’s article for The Guardian - Corbyn is “just another face of ‘poncified’ Labour” and a “catalyst for decline”, even if the party is expected to “cling on to the seat” (December 2). The Syria 66 may honestly believe they are playing to the silent majority, but they could be in for a rude awakening. Corbyn is not going away soon, despite the malicious rumours that he is suffering from “ill health”.


Stories have circulated about how frontbenchers have been emailed with a reminder of their “duty” to respect the leadership’s wishes - Corbyn’s office making it clear to the shadow cabinet that they “know who has been briefing” against him. Especially alarming those who feel a sense of entitlement, “senior Labour sources” have indicated that an emboldened Corbyn is planning a “revenge reshuffle” of his shadow cabinet in the new year. Reportedly, one shadow cabinet minister told friends: “I am expecting a busy Christmas, and a very quiet new year”.

Those possibly lined up for the chop are shadow culture secretary Michael Dugher, shadow Northern Ireland secretary Vernon Coaker, and shadow defence secretary Maria Eagle. Other names mentioned are Angela Eagle, the shadow business secretary (twin sister of Maria), shadow education secretary Lucy Powell and Rosie Winterton, Labour’s chief whip - who abstained on the Syria vote and is apparently facing strong criticism because of her central role in ensuring that the party held a free vote on the issue. Hilary Benn may be too big to touch.

Laughably, the Telegraph presents this as a “sexist purge” of senior Labour women - quoting an unnamed shadow minister as saying “they are bullying women”.8 The same minster further tells the paper that they are a “macho bunch” and it “feels fundamentally sexist”: there was a free vote on Syria and yet, terribly, it “feels like people are being punished” - it “shows a complete lack of respect”, and “we are being treated like the enemy”. Another shadow minister wants us to believe that Corbyn has a “woman problem” because of his decision to make Livingstone joint head of the party’s defence review along with Maria Eagle - an extraordinarily unconvincing argument, it does have to be said. In fact, the whole Telegraph story is disingenuous, hypocritical hogwash from beginning to end - playing the feminist card in about the most vulgar and degenerate way imaginable.

Corbyn needs to confront the right sooner rather than later. Fight fire with fire. But there is an obvious and genuine problem here. He currently presides over what you could call a ‘left-centre-right’ shadow cabinet, but when he looks behind at him at the parliamentary benches - who the hell is there to replace the ‘purged’ ministers? Dennis Skinner? You could imagine making him the minister for fun, but hardly for transport - or indeed anything else. The plain reality is that the PLP is stacked with people from the centre, right … and hard right - who are intransigently anti-Corbyn and will not be happy until he has been deposed. In that sense, Corbyn is stuck in a bind until he gets some new blood into the PLP.

Which precisely brings us to David Cameron’s redrawing, or gerrymandering, of the electoral boundaries in order to shrink the size of the Commons from 650 MPs to 600. Though it is obviously an attack on the Labour Party, it does provide, ironically, an opportunity for the left. Under Labour rules, existing MPs will be automatically considered for selection if they can claim a “substantial territorial interest” of at least 40% in the new seat. But, obviously, other candidates can be nominated too. According to the BBC’s Sunday Politics and other sources, of the Labour-held seats in England, just 36 will remain unchanged.9 For example, Liam Byrne, Tristram Hunt and Chris Leslie - former shadow cabinet ministers who are now on the back benches - could all face constituency battles.

The outcome being, as Seumas Milne - now Labour’s executive director of strategy and communications - explained in an October interview with Russia Today, there will be a chance to “recalibrate” the parliamentary party, which “on all sorts of issues” is “actually out of kilter with public opinion”. It would be criminal to waste such a golden opportunity.



1. www.telegraph.co.uk/news/general-election-2015/parliamentary-constituencies/oldham-west-and-royton/12031040/oldham-west-royton-by-election-results.html.

2. www.theguardian.com/politics/2015/dec/04/ken-livingstone-interview.

3. www.thetimes.co.uk/tto/news/politics/article4631932.ece.

4. www.theguardian.com/media/greenslade/2015/dec/04/the-times-counts-the-cost-of-spinning-against-labour-in-oldham.

5. www.anorak.co.uk/?s=oldham&submit.x=0&submit.y=0&submit=Search.

6. The Daily Telegraph December 8. 2015.

7. www.huffingtonpost.co.uk/2015/11/16/jeremy-corbyn-targeted-in_n_8576600.html.

8. www.telegraph.co.uk/news/politics/Jeremy_Corbyn/12036301/Jeremy-Corbyn-accused-of-preparing-to-mount-sexist-purge-of-his-shadow-cabinet.html.

9. www.theguardian.com/politics/2015/oct/25/mps-who-regularly-defy-labour-whip-should-face-reselection-says-livingstone.