Whichever way you look at it, the Oldham West and Royton by-election result is a boost to Jeremy Corbyn. His opponents in the party might not quite have gone so far as to hope the seat would be lost to Ukip (though those around the leader think that some MPs would have found a loss less devastating than they probably should), but they certainly thought that Corbyn would play very badly indeed on the doorstep. Indeed, all the reports from those on the ground in the constituency and later from MPs returning from the campaign trail were that the white working class vote was not warming to Corbyn at all.
This morning, those Corbyn opponents are pointing out that his office signed off a campaign plan that deliberately sidelined the Labour leader and accentuated Jim McMahon, a moderate, as the local candidate. But they still reported a very frosty reception for Corbyn specifically on the doorstep. Perhaps McMahon was such a strong local candidate that voters thought he outweighed their anxieties about the party’s leader. Perhaps MPs were hearing what they wanted to on the doorstep. Either way, most anti-Corbyn parliamentarians thought the seat would stay Labour but with an embarrassingly reduced majority.
Those MPs predicted that this smaller majority would mean councillors and other parliamentary colleagues across the North would panic that their seats were now at serious threat from Ukip. Now, the question is whether Ukip is a busted flush and does not represent the threat to Labour that it posed in the general election.
What this means, at the end of a difficult week for Corbyn, is that he has taken one step down the road of what will still prove to be illusory success. In August, while the leadership contest was still trundling on, I reported the concerns of one Blairite who was worried that actually Corbyn may notch up by-election and local election successes that would carry him through to the general election, which he would still lose terribly. The moderates/Blairites/stop-Corbynites/whatever label you give them still have no idea what will happen over the next few years but they are united in a belief that the leader won’t win the general election. But because they do not know what will happen in the years in between, they cannot plan properly for the coup that they hope can take place, or at least for the point of maximum weakness that may lead Corbyn to quit. They don’t know when that will be – and last night’s result shows that they need to rethink their predictions.