The first eagerly awaited test of Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership of the Labour Party is likely to come next month. Party chiefs are likely to move quickly to fill the vacancy caused by the death of Michael Meacher. They won’t want UKIP to gain momentum (sorry to use that word, labour moderates) in a constituency perilously close to Heywood and Middleton where Nigel Farage’s outfit nearly beat them in a by election a year ago.
How will the Labour voters in this deprived working class seat react to Jeremy Corbyn. They have been content to elect Michael Meacher twelve times with thumping majorities and he was always on the left of the party being a close ally of Tony Benn when Labour was in a very similar position to where it is now in the 1980’s.
The choice of Labour’s standard bearer will be very interesting. On a personal level the leader of Oldham Council Jim McMahon has an important decision to make. He is a rising star and leads the Labour group on the Local Government Association. He is spoken of as a possible candidate for elected mayor of Greater Manchester in 2017. Unless a Labour government is elected and he rises to Cabinet rank, he would be more likely to have real power up here rather than at Westminster. McMahon may not want it or might not be selected. Momentum is the new Corbynista activist group in the Labour Party. Moderate MPs think there agenda is to start deselecting people who don’t agree with the Labour leader. How influential will they be in the choice of the Oldham candidate?
UKIP do face an uphill task in the seat. Meacher had a majority of nearly 15,000. It has a large south Asian population and the party is preoccupied with infighting about which pressure group is going to leader the EU Out campaign. Nevertheless a divided Labour Party with a poor candidate, an anti Corbyn backlash and a low turnout could produce a surprise.
I referred to Michael Meacher’s dozen victories between 1970 and this May but he began with a defeat. In 1968 the Wilson Labour government was deeply unpopular. So much so that Manchester City Council was controlled by the Conservatives! In a by election in this seat that summer the Conservatives won the seat beating the young Michael Meacher.
We do seem to be getting more than our fair share of by elections in the North West. This will be the fifth since 2010. Oldham East went to the polls after Phil Woolas was unseated in 2011. Tony Lloyd’s resignation to become Police and Crime Commissioner for Greater Manchester sent Manchester Central voters to the polls in 2012 and the deaths of Paul Goggins and Jim Dobbin caused further by elections in Wythenshawe and Heywood in 2014.