A majority of less than 4,000 would be terrible news for the Labour leaderby Peter Kellner / November 17, 2015 / Leave a comment
As I have nothing to say about the dreadful events in Paris that isn’t obvious, pointless or self-indulgent, I shall follow the wisest advice from the weekend: that we democrats should carry on as normal. So, for those who wish to turn with relief to the thankfully non-lethal contest for votes here at home, here are some thoughts on an election that might add a further twist to a surprising year for British politics.
In normal circumstances the coming by-election in Oldham West and Royton would be of little consequence. It is one of Labour’s safest seats. In May Michael Meacher, whose recent death has caused the by-election, had a majority of almost 15,000. We would expect turnout to fall sharply in next month’s vote, and Labour to retain the seat with a sharply reduced majority, of 5,000 or so. Within days, even hours, the contest would be forgotten.
If that is what happens, Jeremy Corbyn will be delighted. He will be able to say that he is not, as his critics claim, toxic with large numbers of Labour’s supporters—or, at any rate, not yet. Doubtless his claim will be challenged. Labour’s candidate, Jim McMahon, is about as perfect an anti-Corbyn flag-carrier as you could hope to find. He is ideologically moderate, an enterprising leader of Oldham’s council and, for those who value personal back-stories, the working-class son of a truck driver. Would a clear victory represent a vote of confidence for the centrist candidate, or his left-wing party leader?
I reckon McMahon’s personal virtues are worth, say, 1,000-2,000 votes, but not much more. It is rare for the individual qualities or defects of a main-party candidate to matter more than that, unless they are subject to nasty, well-targeted vilification. A 5,000-plus majority would be hard to represent as anything other than good news for Corbyn.
But, by the same token, defeat would be terrible news for Labour’s leader. It would be an early sign of a possible meltdown in next May’s elections in London, Scotland, Wales and English local council. Labour MPs who want to depose Corbyn would have reason to start plotting with greater focus and determination than they currently display.
What, then, are the chances of an upset? One ingredient is definitely in place. There is no doubt which candidate is the main challenger: Ukip’s John Bickley. His predecessor, Francis Arbour, came second in May, with 21 per cent of the vote. Ukip’s vote is bound to go up this time. It is a two-horse race. And Bickley will hope to harness the votes of two separate protest groups—those on the Left who don’t like Corbyn, and those on the Right who wish to register their dislike of the Government, over such things as tax credits, not to mention the perennially awkward issue of immigration. To underline the point, Ukip came close capturing the neighbouring seat of Heywood and Middleton in a by-election last year.
However, Oldham West is traditionally more strongly Labour than Heywood and Middleton; it also has more ethnic minority voters who are less likely to vote Ukip. But, for those very reasons, a Ukip victory this time would be particularly spectacular, and hence dangerous for Corbyn.
What, though, if Labour wins, but only narrowly? Corbyn may express delight, but he shouldn’t. A majority of less than 4,000 would be a terrible result. It would mean that Labour lost more votes than in any by-election in an English Labour seat during Ed Miliband’s time as party leader. It would be an early warning of bad results next May. If that is the outcome, it will provoke a short, fierce dispute inside the party to own the narrative, and determine whether the result is seen by Labour MPs as a famous victory or a near-disaster averted by the choice of a popular local candidate.