Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn was supposed to be campaigning in Oldham on Friday ahead of next week’s by-election, but he had to pull out in order to deal with a possible revolt from his own MPs. It might not be a bad thing for Labour though, because despite Oldham West and Royton being considered to be a “very safe Labour seat” by polling companies, it looks like they are going to do very badly there — and it’s all Corbyn’s fault.
There is an election on December 3 to select a new MP in the constituency of Oldham West and Royton because Michael Meacher, the Labour MP who represented the area for 45 years, died in October. There are usually a small number of by-elections during a government’s time in office and they are considered a test of the political mood among the public.
Labour should be crushing it in Oldham, and not only because Meacher won his seat at this year’s General Election with a huge majority of 14,738. By-elections are frequently used as a protest vote. Because they won’t change who is leading the country, people feel more inclined to use their vote to send a message — usually to the party in power at Westminster. The current Conservative government that is implementing an austerity agenda should be a prime target for their anger. But it’s not happening.
There are no proper polls coming out of Oldham, but everything we know is indicating that Labour are going to lose a lot of votes. The most worrying thing for the party is Labour’s own polling. Before the General Election local Labour volunteers found that 32% of voters were planning to support Labour. However, someone from the party has leaked to the Telegraph that only half of those same voters are now planning to come back to Labour.
Corbyn might still retain lots of support among party members, but it seems that traditional Labour voters are deeply suspicious of him. We know this because a number of MPs who have been campaigning in Oldham keep briefing journalists that Corbyn is costing them support. One told the Mirror newspaper “we should win but the majority will be nothing like it was for Meacher. A lot of that is down to Jeremy.”
Labour’s fear is reflected in the way they are running their campaign. Corbyn’s picture has only been used once on their leaflets, while Corbyn himself has paid just one visit to Oldham.
Labour’s rival candidate in Oldham is from UKIP and he has being playing to voters’ fears about Corbyn. As the current crisis over bombing Syria shows, Corbyn’s pacifist tendencies are at odds with the mainstream of the Labour Party and right from the start of the campaign, UKIP have been attacking Corbyn for his views on National Security. John Bivkley, the UKIP candidate went as far as calling Corbyn a “clear and present danger” to the UK.
This was a problem for Labour before the Paris attacks, but all of a sudden, the realities of Corbyn’s views are being thrust into the limelight. UKIP voters are even putting up posters in their windows warning that Corbyn is a “security threat.”
If Labour lose a lot of votes in Oldham next week it will be much more damaging to Corbyn personally then it will be for the Labour party as a whole. Corbyn is currently able to tell Labour MPs who criticise him that he has a large mandate from Labour party members, something that annoys MPs who feel they have a much larger mandate from the millions of voters who voted them in at the General Election before Corbyn was leader. If Corbyn is seen as the reason that Labour do badly in Oldham, it will reinforce the view among many of these MPs that they hold the true mandate for power.
With Labour MPs starting to chose sides, Oldham couldn’t have come at a worse time for Corbyn.
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