Friday 4 December 2015 – Jeremy Corbyn’s week brightened up by by-election win in Oldham

Jeremy Corbyn, the leader of the Labour Party, has had a difficult week. He was faced with the dilemma of Whipping his MPs to vote against extending air strikes against Islamic State into Syria. Corbyn is opposed to such strikes, whether in Syria or elsewhere, believing a political solution is the only way forward. The problem was that many of his own MPs are in favour and were unhappy at the prospect at voting against or abstaining.

After some thought Corbyn decided to NOT to force his MPs to vote against in Wednesday’s vote in the Commons and gave them a free vote. As a result 66 of his MPs voted with the Government. This includes 11 members of the Shadow Cabinet. Many of his own Cabinet and MPs are at odds with Corbyn’s leadership and the direction he’d like to take the Party. He won the leadership in September, coming from being the joke candidate to convincing winner thanks to huge support from ordinary Party members. They were also joined by thousands of Party supporters who each paid at least £3 online in order to participate in the Party’s leadership election.

Most of those voting for Corbyn were deeply concerned that the Party was simply a so-called Tory-lite party, mimicking and rehashing Conservative policies – especially on austerity – and were offering nothing like a real alternative to the Conservatives. They were concerned about the Party’s drift to the right which has been happening since the late 1980s and was accelerated under Tony Blair, Gordon Brown and Ed Miliband. As a consequence of disilussionment with the Party the electorate chose to keep David Cameron in office in the General Election in May.

Miliband’s failure to offer an alternative or to stand up to the austerity from the Tories backfired at the General Election and not only was David Cameron’s Conservatives the winner – but they were given a majority. No Tory Government had achieved that since 1992.  Cameron had become Prime Minister in 2010 but only after a hung parliament forced him into a Coalition with the Liberal Democrats. After the 2015 General Election defeat, Labour Party members and supporters wholeheartedly rejected the usual fayre being offered up as new leader after Ed Miliband resigned. Corbyn got into the race to generate debate and get real issues and alternatives discussed. He never expected to win.

But he did. Along with his newly-elected Deputy, Tom Watson, he has found himself in charge of the Labour Party. And, boy is he taking a lot of flack.  The Conservatives are attacking every left-wing policy he has advocated, highlighting his complete lack of experience in ministerial jobs, and attempting to scare the electorate with what they say the realities  of a Corbyn Government will be. His own MPs aren’t much kinder to him. From the moment of his leadership victory, they have been attacking him, warning of the dangers of the Party  going left, threatening to and actually voting against him in the Commons, and even plotting to overthrow him.

His free vote decision ahead of Wednesday’s Commons vote was a compromise to the anger felt towards him but, in my opinion, it was a sign of weakness. He is leader. He was elected in a democratic election. If MPs can’t accept his leadership and the Whip when he insists on it they can quit their ministerial jobs, oppose him from the backbenches, quit the party, or simply vote against the Whip. Corbyn (pictured below) was never one to respect the Whip and he voted against his own Party line hundreds of times in his time as a backbench MP before becoming leader. He accepted this was the price of keeping his integrity in tact in the face of pressure to conform.

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Sadly many current Labour MPs are not interested in either following Corbyn’s line or losing their ministerial positions and prospects by voting against the Whip. The free vote has given them a Get Out Of Jail Card and, in particular the 11 members of his Cabinet who voted with the Government, have now been given a victory in their desire (from many of them) to undermine Corbyn’s leadership and even get rid of him.

The backing of the Government by 66 Labour MPs to bomb IS in Syria has now generated more trouble for their leader. Reports and accusations of bullying of MPs who voted YES to air strikes have been rife since Wednesday. Some MPs are being trolled online and others have received death threats and accusations of being a traitor to the Party. Others have been called warmongerers, child killers, and murderers who will have blood on their hands as innocent civilians start to be killed by UK bombs in Syria.

Corbyn has condemned such bullying, intimidation and outright threats to his MPs who voted with the Government in the free vote.  No matter how appalled people are that 66 Labour MPs voted the way they did there is no justification for such intimidation.  I am appalled that they voted the way they did, thus supporting another Middle East adventure that will get us nowhere near defeating Islamic State. I am disheartened  that they can’t see the folly of bombing Syria or the futility of such action. Yet I accept that they did so with genuine belief that this is what was right.

Jeremy Corbyn would have found relief from his difficult week early this morning when he heard the great result in the Oldham West and Royton by-election held yesterday. Labour held onto the seat despite – perhaps because of – all the negative criticism and media coverage around Corbyn’s leadership.  The seat became vacant when Michael Meacher died and has now been won for Labour by Jim McMahon.

The figures were themselves heartening for Labour and for Corbyn. In the first by-election of this Parliament, the majority for Labour was reduced from 14,738 at the General Election to 10,722. This, however, was offset by the fact that turnout was down and the important fact that the share of the vote for Labour was up to 62%. The new MP said of his victory: “[he had] delivered a result that Michael [Meacher] would be proud of.”

The by-election was a big test for Corbyn. Some were reporting huge haemorrhaging of Labour votes in the run-up to the election and many expected a surge of support for UKIP. The success, as Corbyn said at a congratulatory rally in Oldham West, showed how “strong deep-rooted and broad” the support was for Labour.

Nigel Farage, leader of UKIP, was  shocked and outraged by the result. He called it “perverse” and went on a rascist diabtribe as to how Asian voters who couldn’t speak English were voting for Labour. He claimed the postal vote was “rigged” and that people were turning up at the ballot boxes with “bundles of postal votes.”. According to Farage he had never been more surprised by a result and said that the “Electoral process is dead”. UKIP’s attempts to turn the election into a referendum on Corbyn backfired spectacularily as voters focused on the local issues that always mean more to voters in by-elections than national and international issues that they think more about at General Elections.

Farage also said that his Party will make a formal complaint “about the abuses that our people saw yesterday.” That is his right and is a matter for the Electoral Commission to investigate. Not to excuse any electoral fraud, Farage – however – admitted that UKIP would have lost even if every postal ballot had been for their candiadate John Bickley.  UKIP had been playing up the immigration card and the patriotic bullshit they usually trot out at elections. He and many commentators believed that white working-class voters were sick of Labour and the liberal direction it is taking under Corbyn. They believed those voters would turn en masse to UKIP. In Oldham West and Royton, at least, they were wrong.

The Labour Party’s Deputy Prime Minister dismissed Farage’s claims as “sour grapes”. The result is devastating news for UKIP who were hoping to take advantage of their perception that the country was rejecting Jeremy Corbyn. They finished in a poor second nearly 11,000 votes behind. The Consevatives came third with a vote down by 10%.

The new MP spoke of how “I am sick to death of what the Tories are doing to towns like Oldham.” MacMahon had focused his campaign on tax credits, austerity and regeneration – the bread-and-butter issues. He largely ignored the international issues dominating Westminster at the present.

One by-election victory doesn’t make a Government-in-waiting, but it’s a start.  Jeremy Corbyn can take heart from the result, especially from the poor showing by UKIP in what could be seen as a heartland for both UKIP and Labour.  But Oldham West is not middle-England, and it is there that Labour will also have to regain the trust of the electorate. The traditional Conservative voters of middle-England will be much harder to win over when it comes to a General Election – assuming that Corbyn is still in charge of Labour then.

Some Corbyn-sceptic Labour MPs acknowledge that the result will bolster his leadership. Others fear the result for the same reason. They believe that it will embolden so-called “Corbynites” and could increase their own fears of isolation and increase the chance that moderates in the Party will be deselected or purged.

The next General Election is 4½ years away. It is impossible to know where Labour, Jeremy Corbyn, the Consevatives, the economy or the country in general will be in 2020.  I still think that the odds of Labour getting to the 2020 election with Corbyn in charge are slim. If he does get there – and I hope he does – then he is going to have a mountain to climb to defeat Cameron and whovever is to replace him after 2020.

THE FULL RESULT

Jim McMahon (Labour) – 17,209 (62.11%)
John Bickley (UKIP) – 6,487 (23.41%)
James Daley (Consevative) – 2,596 (9.37%)
Jane Brophy (Liberal Democrat) – 1,024 (3.70%)
Simeon Hart (Green Party) – 249 (0.90%)
Sir Oink-A-Lot (Monster Raving Loony) – 141 (0.51%)

SOME QUOTES FROM THE BY-ELECTION

LABOUR LEADER JEREMY CORBYN
“It shows the way we’ve driven the Tories back on tax credits, on police cuts, on their whole austerity agenda and narrative. It shows just how strong, how deep-rooted and how broad our party, the Labour Party, is for the whole of Britain.”

NEWLY-ELECTED LABOUR MP JIM MCMAHON
“This is a truly overwhelming thing for a local lad to represent the town he loves in Westminster is a big, big issue. And I’m very clear I’m sick to death of what the Topries  are doing to towns like Oldham. The whole Northern Powerhouse rhetoric is nothing more than the write-off of the North to create a poorhouse. And I’m sick of it. And I think it’s about time we showed the Tories that people have had enough.”

LABOUR DEPUTY LEADER TOM WATSON
“If this was a referendum on Jeremy Corbyn, that he has won. It was a decisive victory with our share of the vote going up. I hope our MPs look at this result.”

UKIP LEADER NIGEL FARAGE
“As a veteran of over 30 by-elections I have never seen such a perverse result. Serious quuestions need to be asked.”

ANTI-WAR LABOUR MP PAUL FLYNN
“Real votes by real Oldham people is first public expression of doubt against Cameron’s dodgy dossier with his invented bogus battalions.”

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