There’s always hope, though I am not sure how much.
You have to have faith in something though.
Labour retains safe Labour seat in Lancashire heartlands byelection. No story there, then. Except that, in the case of the Oldham West and Royton byelection, there undoubtedly is a story. This has been a torrid back end of the year for Labour. Splits, bad blood and bad headlines have cooked up such a witches’ brew for Jeremy Corbyn’s party that the expectation on all sides, based on doorstep evidence, was of a Labour slump and even perhaps a loss to Ukip. Early editions of the Daily Mail on Friday were so confident that they ran a pre-declaration story headlined “Corbyn effect costs Labour thousands of votes.” But, let’s be honest, no one else saw evidence of a big Labour win coming.
It is true that the Labour vote fell this week in Oldham West compared with the general election. But so did everybody else’s. That’s because turnout as a whole went down from 60% in May to 40% on Thursday, sadly typical for a modern byelection. What matters though, was that Labour’s share of the vote actually went up – by seven points – not down, while the Conservatives fell by 10 points and Ukip, supposedly the great threat to Labour this week, managed only a small increase while still ending nearly 11,000 votes adrift of Labour’s new MP Jim McMahon.
That’s a good bankable win for Labour in anyone’s money. Mr McMahon’s success puts him into the top 20 Labour shares of the vote in Britain and gives his party a much-needed electoral fillip after a grim time. The flip side of it is that it’s a bad loss for the challengers, Ukip and the Tories, never mind the Liberal Democrats and the Greens, all of whom might have persuaded themselves that Oldham West might offer them something. The gas has gone out of Ukip’s balloon, at least in Lancashire, while George Osborne’s party has no electoral dividend to show for all his northern powerhouse-building.
It’s a mistake to pretend that Labour’s win is all that unusual, though. By a coincidence, the first byelection of the last parliament was in neighbouring Oldham East and Saddleworth in January 2011. Labour successfully put up its share in that byelection too, by a meaty 10 points, while the Tory share halved. It was a reassuring win for Labour’s new leader Ed Miliband, whose party mostly did well in byelections for the next three years. But like most byelections in the early part of a parliament it said little or nothing about the 2015 general election result when it eventually came. There was a long way still to go, then as now.
Mr McMahon was clearly an excellent candidate in a crucial contest for his party. Talented, local, competent, well known in an area where he is the council leader, he was nobody’s callow besuited candidate from Westminster central casting. These things probably mattered more than that he was on a different wing of the party from his leader. Labour’s factions will argue long and loud about whether Oldham was a victory for Mr McMahon or Mr Corbyn. Their respective conclusions will reflect their respective prejudices. The truth is surely that, between them, they did enough to allow the Labour brand to win once more.
Real votes matter more than opinion polls. Yet each of them is important. Labour can draw comfort from Oldham West. But it has to beware the message of a poll this week which showed, first, that the voters grew more doubtful about air strikes in Syria as Wednesday’s Commons vote drew near but, second, that Mr Corbyn’s job ratings have fallen sharply since he took over in September. Mr Corbyn now has a net approval rating of -41, compared with -8 in September. David Cameron, by contrast, has a rating of zero, with voters evenly divided. That should be cause for Labour concern.
Still, we should not be hypocritical. If Labour had lost Thursday’s byelection, this editorial and this weekend’s political talk would all be about Mr Corbyn, especially after a searing week at Westminster over Syria. His leadership would be on the line. The profiles of Hilary Benn would be being burnished. So if defeat for Labour would have been bad for Mr Corbyn, it surely follows that victory for Labour must be good for him. His leadership is therefore not on the line right now. In Oldham at least, Mr Corbyn was not the issue in the way his opponents and critics might have imagined. On Wednesday, Labour MPs went along with majority party opinion and supported him on Syria by two to one. This tells us something, perhaps not too much, about the future. Nevertheless, the Labour leader can undoubtedly breathe a sigh of relief this weekend. And so can his party, at least until next time.
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