The death of Michael Meacher means the first by-election of this Parliament is upon us — as well as the first with Jeremy Corbyn as Labour leader. The exact timings have yet to be announced but sometime before the end of 2015 seems likely. The seat is likely to be a shoo-in for Labour: Oldham West & Royton and its predecessor constituency have been represented by Meacher since 1970 and by Labour since 1950 (minus one by-election in 1968). But strange things happen in by-elections and Ukip managed to increase its vote share in May’s general election by 17 per cent to 20.6 per cent. Labour has a whopping 14,738 majority but the Kippers see this as an opportunity to test out Labour’s new direction under Jeremy Corbyn. A Ukip spokesman explains:
‘The Corbynista politics do not appeal to the core vote in Oldham. He might have an appeal in certain parts of the world but that seat isn’t made up of students and Hampstead socialists. Given the complete chaos that is Labour at present, it’s not out of the question that we could topple it. We have very good people up in the North West.’
But others in the party admit they will struggle to take the seat. Overturning a 34 per cent majority will be very difficult but at the very least, the Kippers are hoping to give Labour a fright by repeating their strategy from the Heywood and Middleton by-election last year — a neighbouring seat to Oldham West that it almost snatched from under Labour’s noses. A senior Ukip source says:
‘The strategic objective is not so much to win – although we will try to. If you are a traditional Labour voter, who is repulsed by Corbyn and his pro immigration, unpatriotic, anti welfare reform agenda, we are the real alternative and we need to prove that in this by-election. The most important thing for us is to choose a candidate with the right tone and values.’
Despite rumours of activists and donors fleeing the party, Ukip is confident they have enough resources to put in a good fight. The party is likely to choose a strong Northern Kipper as their candidate. Although the party’s local branch will have some input, it is Ukip’s NEC that will ultimately choose the candidate, as they do in all by-elections. The most obvious choice is John Bickley, the candidate who stood in the Heywood and Middleton by-election. One party source told Coffee House he would be an ‘absolutely superb candidate’ and ‘exactly the sort of face Ukip needs to present to the world’, but others aren’t sure if he will throw his hat into the ring.
The other names being floated at the moment are Steven Woolfe, an MEP and the party’s migration spokesman, and Paul Nuttall, also an MEP and Ukip’s deputy leader. Both are Northern street fighters who would relish taking on a Corbynista and the Corbyn agenda.
There appears little chance of any of Ukip’s other big figures — Nigel Farage, Suzanne Evans and Mark Reckless — running to be the by-election candidate. Farage has now made seven attempts to be an MP and losing South Thanet was a bruising experience for him. Losing yet again would be fatal. Evans is currently tied up writing the party’s London manifesto and running for a seat on the GLA, while Reckless is focused on the elections in Wales next year.
The challenge for Ukip in Oldham West & Royton is to regain their lost momentum. After the party’s general election campaign — which returned just one MP for the party, despite gaining 3.8 million votes — the attention and media profile they once enjoyed has shifted elsewhere. Even with the impending EU referendum, Ukip’s role in the Leave campaigns is uncertain. If Farage’s party can put in a good showing up north, they can prove Ukip is not a spent force in domestic politics.