In 24 hours, the polling stations in Oldham West and Royton will be open and Jeremy Corbyn’s Labour party will face its first test at the ballot box. Labour has held the seat for several decades and returned it with a 14,000 majority in May’s general election — so it should be an easy victory. But Corbyn’s leadership appears to dragging the party towards electoral oblivion, while Ukip is chipping away at the formerly solid Labour working-class vote in the North of England.
So will the party manage to hold onto the seat? Although the implied odds from bookmakers say Ukip has a 27 per cent chance of winning, there are signs on the ground that all is not well for Labour. I spent a day on the doorsteps of Oldham, speaking to campaigners and voters to see how the battle is going.
John Bickley: the man who could be Ukip’s second MP?
As with most Ukip stories, my trip up north began in a pub. The Railway in Royton town centre serves as the party’s unofficial campaign HQ and several of the patrons went out of their way to give their best wishes to John Bickley, the Ukip candidate. Despite living outside of Royton, he appears to be a popular local figure. His kindly uncle persona has convinced The Railway’s barmaid to back Ukip.
The 62-year-old businessman has stood in two previous by-elections for Ukip in the North West: Wythenshawe and Sale East and Heywood and Middleton. The latter is important because it’s a neighbouring seat to Oldham West and Bickley came 617 votes away from winning. He signed up to Ukip in 2011 because of ‘their stand on Europe and liberalism’ and has recently been appointed to the NEC as party treasurer. But he does not see himself as a tribal Kipper: ‘Ukip has my vote at the moment but it is actually on loan, as long as they follow the policies that I joined them for’.
But on all areas of policy, Bickley is happy to defer to other Kippers. When quizzed on the airstrikes in Syria, Bickley says ‘ultimately Douglas Carswell will be making his decision, having discussed this with the party and what the party’s current position is’. On shoot to kill, his view is in line with Nigel Farage: ‘very simply, if anyone appears on our streets and starts gunning down British citizens, shoot them’.
But Bickley believes he has struck gold with Jeremy Corbyn. ‘For me, it started to come into focus two weeks ago — what was happening with the Corbyn effect and the toxicity on the doorstep’. He says voters have told him Corbyn is ‘an idiot’ and he believes the consensus in Oldham is that ‘these people are not credible’.
If Ukip doesn’t win — something Bickley is admits is very possible — he thinks Thursday’s vote will be a big moment for the party. ‘Either way, we are back in the game because we’ll either win it and it’s a game changer or we’ll get a brilliant second place’. He won’t be drawn on what would count as a success but the local Ukip operation is optimistic about their chances.
The party is urging activists across the country to hit the stump in Oldham – even those dressed as Winston Churchill. But the party’s campaigning operation remains as shambolic as ever: when I was following party activists around, their photocopied maps became so wet that we got lost and no voters seemed keen to speak to the Kippers.
Jim McMahon: Labour’s busy local lad
MPs ranging from Tristram Hunt to Hilary Benn and John McDonnell were all out campaigning this weekend. I found the candidate, Jim McMahon, at a Momentum curry where he told the activists ‘I have no idea if I’m to the left or to the right or to the centre, or in out and shake it all about’. He received a big cheer for telling the Momentumites ‘Jeremy has my full support’:
Watch: Jim McMahon’s stump speech in Oldham West https://t.co/XnL6f1negt
— Sebastian Payne (@SebastianEPayne) December 2, 2015
Andrew Gwynne, the Labour MP for the Denton and Reddish who is running the by-election campaign, had a word with Coffee House. He denied the party was nervous about losing this seat. ‘I don’t get where these negative stories are coming from. The mood is quite positive — we’re now onto the third round of canvassing the whole constituency,’ he said. ‘Our key challenge now is to persuade Christmas shoppers to go to a drafty church hall and get the votes out on the day’.
While Ukip and some in Labour are trying to make this by-election about Corbyn’s leadership, Gwynne says it is not ‘about a change of government’ but about ‘local issues’ and on this basis, he believes McMahon will win. Thanks to the help of Momentum, Labour has more activists on the ground — 400 on the day I visited, compared to roughly 120 for Ukip — and Gwynne said he was surprised that Ukip hasn’t been more vocal:
‘I’m very surprised at how low key Ukip’s operation has been. We know they’ve been lacking in money financially as all their backers have gone to campaigns for leaving the EU’.
He also claimed the party had promised it would have a heavy campaign presence, but that he hadn’t seen much evidence of this
Labour’s working class problem
While Gwynne puts across a cheery image of a successful campaign, others in Labour are becoming increasingly convinced that Ukip is on track to either win Oldham West or come very close. John McDonnell’s comments this weekend — describing Ukip as an ‘evil force’ — have become of great concern to strategists who reckon they will push swing voters away from the party.
Everyone I have spoken to in Labour happily admits the one thing in their favour is the candidate — McMahon is seen as a solid, uncontroversial man and the party is happy with its choice. But there is also an acceptance that there’s no getting around the fact Corbyn is proving ‘deadly’ on the doorstep, according to one strategist, and McMahon’s personality might not be able to trump this.
One campaigner in Oldham told Coffee House, ‘it’s dreadful, there’s an unprecedented level of people shutting doors in faces over Corbyn. Unfortunately, McMahon’s personal story is not overcoming that’. For example, one voter simply cited ‘that man’ as a reason for dropping his life-long support for Labour.
There are three voting groups Labour has traditionally relied on in Oldham West: blue-collar working class voters, the Asian community and deprived/disaffected voters. The latter group is unlikely to turn out in a by-election and Labour is worried the working class voters are swinging towards Ukip — thanks to concerns about welfare and immigration, as well as protesting against Corbyn. Labour can at least rely on the Asian community, who make up roughly 20-25 per cent of the constituency and are expected to fully back McMahon.
But the canvas returns have suggested the Labour vote is very soft and there are lots of ‘undecideds’. Activists are reporting back that Corbyn is universally cited by undecided voters as the main reason for not backing Labour. This may be one of the reasons that Oldham West CLP, which is still in ‘special measures’ over concerns about undue influences in candidate selection, was not too disappointed when the Labour leader cancelled his last visit (Corbyn was due to visit two mosques in the constituency).
The Conservative vote is also important. In May’s general election, the Tories were just 600 votes behind Ukip in Oldham but the party is barely running a campaign this time. Nigel Farage has spent most of his time campaigning in the west of the seat, where the Tory vote is strong. If these voters split 50:50 with Ukip, this will certainly push the Kippers closer to beating Labour.
Who is going to win?
Much of what has happened in Oldham West before this week is similar to the long general election campaign: ignored by voters as background noise. All swings in by-elections tend to happen in the final five days and both Labour and Ukip have been hoping for a big push this week. Ukip insiders say their campaign has consistently been ‘five days ahead of where we were in Heywood & Middleton’, suggesting that it is going as well as it could be. Labour has been keeping up a constant stream of celebrity MPs to engage activists.
The Oldham West result will have a lot to do with the weather, as the BBC’s James Landale has suggested. According to the Met Office, it’s going be cold and raining, which suggests a low turnout. Those soft Labour voters may decide to stay at home.
But even if Labour manages to hold on, say with a majority of 1,000-2,000, it will show that the party is rapidly losing the working class votes it once took for granted. Anything other than a really solid Labour result will send MPs and councillors across the North into a panic about their own positions.