Labour wins in Oldham – but should this be seen as a victory for Jeremy Corbyn?

Jim McMahon ran a local campaign.in Oldham. Reuters/Phil Noble

By-elections are tricky things. The media has a tendency to paint each one as a referendum on either the party in power, or the official opposition – and particularly their leadership. To read coverage of the vote that has just taken place in Oldham West and Royton, you’d think that the Labour Party leader, Jeremy Corbyn, was personally standing.

The fact that by-elections are actually contests fought between local candidates, mostly focusing on local issues, is often forgotten. In general, it’s best not to read too much into them.

However Oldham has more resonance than most. This was the first by-election after Labour’s general election defeat in May – and the first since Jeremy Corbyn became leader. It also followed a fairly dreadful couple of weeks for the party. In fact the Oldham campaign has been eclipsed in the news by Labour’s internal splits over intervention in Syria.

Labour’s victory by a convincing, although reduced, majority of 10,000 votes, is a bit like a Rorschach Inkblot – everyone is going to see what they want to see.

Everyone’s a winner

The pro-Corbyn factions of Labour will see this as a vindication of their man and the direction in which he is taking the party. After months of relentlessly negative coverage from the right-wing press, some were predicting that while Labour would still win, its majority would be cut to under 4,000. In the event, its majority remained above the crucial 10,000 line. That will give Corbyn a much-needed breathing space over the Christmas holidays.

Get out of my shot, Jez. Reuters/Andrew Yates

The centre-right of the party will argue the Oldham election was won despite Corbyn, rather than because of him. They will point to the fact that the candidate, Jim McMahon, is much more to the centre of the party, is markedly pro-business – and didn’t vote for Corbyn in the leadership election.

Equally, while the UKIP and Conservative candidates attempted to focus on Corbyn, migration and security concerns, McMahon wisely decided to stick to local issues. In fact looking at his statements and literature throughout the campaign, it’s noticeable how few times Corbyn was actually mentioned. McMahon’s voting record in parliament over the next few months will now come under close scrutiny to see where his party allegiances lie.

The problem here for Corbyn is that if candidates are being elected on their own popularity, bypassing or ignoring the leadership, they won’t owe him any particular loyalty once they take their seat in parliament. This is in contrast to the era of Tony Blair, when many candidates got in partly because Blair was more popular than his party.

Sour grapes from Nigel

For UKIP supporters, this result will make a miserable end to a fairly miserable year. Electoral failure in May was followed by vicious infighting over the summer and a noticeable drop in press coverage in the autumn.

It will however fit the party’s victim narrative. At the general election UKIP argued, not unfairly, that its poor results were due to the British electoral system. For Oldham they appear to be alleging electoral fraud via the postal voting system, with particular emphasis placed on the role of ethnic minorities.

The issue is that while this line might resonate with UKIP followers, it can only be used so many times before people start demanding hard proof to back up the claims being made. In the absence of proof, UKIP starts to look like a very poor loser – ready to blame electoral failure on anything other than the candidates and the policies.

Politics is all about perception. The UKIP narrative before May was political momentum. When this failed to materialise it needed to create a new narrative. The trouble with momentum is that when its gone it’s gone. UKIP argued strongly after May that it was now a serious threat to the left as well as the right because Labour could no longer rely on white working-class votes. Oldham, at least on the face of it, seems to demonstrate that these claims were perhaps overstated. Still, as we all know, it’s unwise to read too much into one by-election result.