Oldham is a fundamental test for Labour

Labour Launch their Oldham West and Royton By-election Campaign Image copyright Getty Images
Image caption Labour party candidate Jim McMahon was council leader in Oldham

"People don't want to vote for him. He's not like the leaders I'm used to. That Gordon Brown. I loved Gordon Brown. And Ed Miliband," says the man on the doorstep of the terraced house.

Nostalgia is a wonderful thing.

He goes on to share his disapproval of Jeremy Corbyn's remarks on shoot to kill and bewilderment that even the Mirror seems against the Labour leader.

The Oldham West and Royton by-election is the first real electoral test of the Labour party's new leader and many eyes in Westminster will be fixed on the north west next week: some nervously, others - Mr Corbyn's enemies - almost with a sense of anticipation.

But this vote goes deeper than one man - it may prove to be a test of even more fundamental problems for the party.

It should be a safe seat - people are going to the polls on 3 December because of the death of veteran left-winger Michael Meacher.

Mr Meacher, a friend and supporter of Mr Corbyn's, had a majority of nearly 15,000 at the last election, and had been the town's MP for 45 years.

But there's an irony here. The first standard bearer to go into electoral battle on behalf of Mr Corbyn seems to me very Blairite.

Labour's candidate and leader of Oldham council, Jim McMahon, eschews labels. He tells me "I'm not left, right or centre. I'm Oldham."

But the way he's been 'Oldham" tells you quite a lot. He's a rising star, spotted by the Economist even before this election. The son of a lorry driver, he left school at 16 but 14 years later he has an OBE, won "council leader of the year" in 2014 and is on Labour's ruling body.

He speaks the Blairite language of aspiration, saying he wants working class parents to have middle class kids.

He has earned enthusiastic plaudits from local business for the way he has encouraged private enterprise and investment in the town centre.

Image copyright Getty Images
Image caption Former MP Michael Meacher, who died in October, was on the left wing of the Labour party

But the Corbyn factor is there, a background hum, although the man who loves Gordon Brown is more worried about having to apply for benefits online than Labour's apparent swing to the left.

The candidate doesn't deny that people raise Jeremy Corbyn on the doorstep - but he does a good job of defending him, if not exactly some of the more controversial statements and policies.

He tells the long-standing Labour voter: "You said a very interesting thing there - that he's not like the leaders you're used to.

"We need to make our mind up - people are fed up with politicians all looking and sounding the same, and saying anything to get a vote.

"You can't accuse Jeremy Corbyn of that - he's a man of principle. He says what he believes in. Now, the risk of that is that sometimes he will say things that people disagree with."

UKIP push

UKIP, who came second in the general election, are doing all they can to exploit the Corbyn factor.

The leaflet they are pushing through letter boxes has plenty on local issues on the front, but on the back is a shot of the Sun front page, asserting that the Labour leader wants to abolish the army.

Image copyright PA
Image caption UKIP has been campaigning hard in Oldham

Another leaflet suggests it is Labour policy to abolish the monarchy and have uncontrolled mass migration.

I put it to their candidate John Bickley that this is unfair.

"I think it is pretty fair to point out that Labour flip flop on immigration. I've had this first hand last year in Heywood where they didn't want to talk about immigration even though it was the number one issue on the doorstep.

"So do you want to control immigration or not? I think it is absolutely fair of me to point out that their policy on immigration is a joke."

Out campaigning one woman tells him that he's got her vote "for lots of reasons". But she is contemptuous of Labour's new leader.

"I think the man is a complete and utter lunatic - I don't know how he ever got elected.

"I'm a Royalist to start with, I don't like the fact he wouldn't sing the national anthem, that put me off straight away, and obviously what we've got with the terrorism issue - we'd all love to live in a world where we all put our arms down and not fight, but we don't.

"I just think his views are ridiculous, I think the man is an idiot."

Ethnic tensions

Oldham has a very large ethnic community - around a quarter of the population have origins in Pakistan or Bangladesh. Most of them are loyal Labour voters.

The city has recovered from the 2001 riots - but you can tell there are great sensitivities.

At the town's biggest mosque, community leaders tell me they don't back particular parties - and are careful not to name names.

Image copyright Getty Images
Image caption Oldham was one of the successful cotton mill towns but has fallen on harder times in recent years

But Fazil Rahim, from the Oldham Mosque Council, doesn't need much decoding when he says: "I have seen leaflets. One of the parties is campaigning on that. I think they are making a big mistake.

"By raising it they are making a scapegoat and those people should not be a football in a by-election here."

He says that since Paris two Muslim women have been attacked. Islamophobia is on the rise, he says, it is "the elephant in the room".

One woman of Pakistani background tells me part of the problem is white people don't feel they can talk about certain issues, so they never get discussed or resolved.

You could say the same of the Labour party. The bitter civil war over Jeremy Corbyn's leadership has become not a symbol for its wider problems, but a substitute for debating them.

If a substantial number of people who traditionally vote Labour choose UKIP instead, it highlights a number of problems for the party.

First immigration: there is no easy way to solve this.

Many potential Labour voters are worried about immigration, and don't think the party has found the right language to talk about it or policies to deal with it.

There is good reason for this - one of the very few things that unites Blairites and Coybynistas is that they think a multi-cultural Britain is a good thing, and immigration is on the whole a boon. So do many of their supporters - but not all.

Then there are all the issues around patriotism, monarchy and, above all, war. New Labour proved itself in a rather dramatic way not to be "soft" over Iraq - and that has provoked a backlash that leaves the party riven top to bottom.

Behind all this is the fracturing of the Labour vote, with the virtual death of the traditional working class, and widespread concerns over the impact of globalisation.

Local issues

It is not surprising that this big picture is missing on the doorstep in Oldham. From my brief encounters I'd say the burning issue is potholes, not neoliberalism.

Image copyright Conservative party
Image caption Conservative candidate James Daly is focusing on local issues

The Conservatives, narrowly beaten into third place by UKIP at the general election, know this and say they are fighting on local issues.

Their candidate James Daly tells me: "The things that matter to people here are the things that affect them every day, crime and antisocial behaviour, better public transport links and investment in them.

"And the third thing is clean up our street from potholes, fly tipping and littering. The message we get is that these issues are not being dealt with locally - they want an MP who will stand on their side."

The Lib Dem candidate Jane Brophy, whose party trailed a distant fourth at the general election, told a hustings why she thought people should vote for her: "I'm passionate about the environment. I know the area, I have worked here for the health service.

"I'm passionate about mental health service for young people. We are the only party that actually completely stands against tax credit cuts. Labour only voted to delay them."

The views I found on the doorstep might not be representative.

The organisation that supports Jeremy Corbyn, Momentum, couldn't put us in touch with anyone locally, but some clearly feel that the new leader and new members will help them hold the seat, not lose it.

Traditional left-wing policies on issues such as welfare could play well in Oldham.

The result, whatever it is, will repay a lot of study before its lessons are clear.

Given the state of the Labour party at the moment it would be staggering if there was one simple shared interpretation by 4 December.

Oldham West and Royton by-election candidates:

  • Conservative: James Daly
  • Green: Simeon Hart
  • Labour: Jim McMahon
  • Liberal Democrat: Jane Brophy
  • Monster Raving Loony: Sir Oink A-Lot
  • UKIP: John Bickley

General Election 2015 result

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