3 Dec. — A by-election was held in the constituency of Oldham West and Royton (Greater Manchester). Labour Party candidate Jim McMahon was the victor. This success is of great importance for the recently elected leader of the party, Jeremy Corbyn. As the BBC put it, the by-election was the “first electoral test” for him.
Europe Insight wrote earlier that Jeremy Corbyn’s victory in September led many to presume the Labour Party can now kiss its hopes of becoming ruling party again goodbye. Since then, the situation has followed a pessimistic trajectory. Regularly rocking the party have been scandals connected, sometimes, to controversial statements by members of the shadow government and, other times, to open confrontation between the leadership and rank-and-file deputies.
Serving as the latest incident was the 2 December House of Commons vote on airstrikes against the Islamic State in Syria. Corbyn strongly opposed this step, insisting on a political and diplomatic solution. However, 66 of his fellow party members voted with the conservative government, which once again directly accused him of being a “terrorist sympathiser”.
Against this backdrop, the by-election in Oldham West and Royton was supposed to confirm the general trend. At least, as thought by Anthony Wells of the market research firm YouGov, for instance, the majority that Labour had had after general elections in May could not remain as high as before.
Labour’s opponents did not conceal their expectations of victory. The main contender was seen to be UKIP representative John Joseph Bickley. Party leader Nigel Farage was confident their candidate was capable not only of winning but also of starting a domino effect and “sweeping Labour out of the North”.
However, the reality turned out otherwise. The Oldham West and Royton constituency has been a safe Labour seat for decades. In May, Michael Meacher garnered 23,630 votes (55%), leaving UKIP and Conservative Party opponents far behind. The majority of the constituency’s inhabitants voted for him – a proven representative of the party’s left wing and ardent Corbyn supporter – even back then. So the election of his successor seemed guaranteed from the start. The issue was only how many total votes he could get.
Jim McMahon was supported by 17,209 (62%). It was an unequivocal victory. As for the reduction of the total number of votes garnered by Labour in December compared to May, and of majority (from 14,738 to 10,722), this is easily explained by a significant drop in turnout – from 59.6% to 40.3%.
Labour successfully dealt a painful blow to the pessimists. However, the awkwardness arising from the completely failed prognoses has been compensated for by a new wave of predictions. As the Independent wrote, victory in a traditionally Labour constituency means nothing and only calls to mind the fate of former party leader Ed Miliband, who achieved similar success early in his leadership, “and look what happened to him”.