Labour’s landslide victory over racist UKIP in the Oldham West and Royton byelection offered a gleam of hope, something to cheer in an otherwise grim week.
The warmongers at Westminster pushed through airstrikes on Syria the day before the Oldham vote, while on Sunday we are set to see yet more election gains for the fascist Front National in France – we will have coverage of this on Dream Deferred later.
But in the small hours of Friday morning, we could at least enjoy a happy result in Oldham – and one that has left the smug pro-austerity, pro-war consensus of politicians, press and pundits with egg on their faces.
The byelection would be a referendum on Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership of the Labour Party, press and pundits declared, amid universal dire warnings – usually citing either UKIP sources or unnamed Blairites – that the mere mention of Corbyn’s name was toxic on the campaign trail.
Even if UKIP didn’t win, Labour’s majority of some 14,000 would be slashed in a damning verdict on Corbyn, they claimed… right up until the result came through. Then came a sudden switch of narrative: apparently Labour won “despite Corbyn”.
This is laughable. We are not talking about a narrow win here. Labour took 62.2% of the vote in Oldham West, an impressive 7.3 percentage points up on the general election result under Ed Miliband. It now has a huge lead of nearly 40 percentage points on UKIP.
That result came despite wall to wall national press coverage attacking Corbyn over his anti-war stance all week.
The Oldham result was a shock across a spectrum of rightwingers from UKIP, at the far right end, to the Blairites who still can’t get their heads round the fact that Corbyn – as he proved in the leadership race – is not actually “unelectable”.
Whatever do the little people of Oldham think they’re doing, voting like this? Some of them aren’t even white, you know.
For this has also been a byelection campaign with a clear and nasty edge of racism to it. The Asian residents of Oldham West, who make up about a quarter of the total population, have been the target.
The support for Labour among many local Asians has been attacked in sinister tones, suggesting that this is in some way a slur on the party or that there is something problematic about Asians voting at all.
UKIP leader Nigel Farage didn’t bother to conceal his party’s view of what he calls the “ethnic element” among voters. Speaking after the election, he ranted:
What mass immigration has done, now, is significantly changed the electoral calculations in this country, to the extent where within many of these communities, we’re not having a proper election in any sense at all.
That undertow of racism was not produced purely by UKIP, however. Plenty of others have contributed as well. Dogwhistles have been sounding. Farage gleefully cited the Guardian’s north of England editor, Helen Pidd, who came up with this on twitter during the campaign:
A dismaying number of voters I met in Oldham today can’t speak English despite living there a decade or more. But they’re voting Labour.
— Helen Pidd (@helenpidd) November 27, 2015
In Oldham, the backdrop to this is not only the recent spike of Islamophobia and attacks on Muslims following the terrorist killings in Paris (and stirred further by David Cameron’s drive to war). There is local history too.
This is not the first time outsiders have crawled all over the town stirring racist hate and racialising every issue. Oldham is where the fascist British National Party and other nazi groups poured in their boot boys, attacking local Asians and provoking an eruption of anger among Asian youths in the Oldham riots of 2001. BNP leader Nick Griffin stood in Oldham West in the general election that year, taking 16.4% of the vote.
Labour’s victory at the polls this time is even more heartening in the face of such a racist campaign.
What actually happened?
|Monster Raving Loony
|Sir Oink A-Lot
While the Oldham result is one to celebrate, it’s worth a closer look too, especially for antiracists concerned by the rise of UKIP that saw the racist party take nearly 4 million votes at the general election.
The biggest loser in the byelection was in fact the Tory party, whose vote slumped from 19% at the general election to just 9.3%. Don’t expect to read any headlines about a it being a referendum on Cameron’s new government though…
The Lib Dems, whose vote collapsed at the general election, came in with the same 3.7% share this time as in May – another lost deposit.
We should note that UKIP’s share of the vote actually went up from 20.6% in May to 23.4% at the byelection. But this was a bad night for the racist party just the same.
To see why, we can compare the Oldham West result with that in last year’s Heywood and Middleton byelection, where UKIP came within just 617 votes of taking the seat from Labour.
The neighbouring constituencies have both been targeted by UKIP, which has a strategic aim of building in what have traditionally been Labour’s northern heartlands of Yorkshire and Lancashire. After coming so close in Heywood, UKIP selected the same candidate, John Bickley, this time round.
In Heywood, as our analysis at the time showed, Labour voters did not switch to UKIP.
Instead UKIP benefited from the collapse of the Tory and Lib Dem vote – and also hoovered up former BNP voters (the fascists took 7% in the previous election in 2010).
Labour managed to hold up its share of the vote, going from 40.1% in 2010 to 40.9% last year. But because UKIP brought together a chunk of votes previously split between the Conservatives, Lib Dems and BNP, it is a stronger rival and came within an ace of taking the formerly safe Labour seat.
To counteract this, Labour needed to get more of its voters out. It dropped around 7,000 votes between the 2010 general election and the 2014 poll. Although some of this might be expected in a byelection when turnouts are generally lower, the reluctance of Labour voters to drag themselves the polling booths put the Heywood seat in danger.
As we noted at the time, the then Labour leader Ed Miliband’s failure to stand up for working class interests against the Tories’ austerity drive made his party barely worth getting out of bed for.
In Oldham West, UKIP has also built its base largely from disgruntled former Tory and Lib Dem voters, who between them accounted for 49.9% of the total vote at the 2010 general election, plus another 7.1% who voted BNP in 2010.
At the general election in May, UKIP moved into second place with 20.6%, just ahead of the Tories who went down slightly to 19%, with the Lib Dems crashing to just 3.7%. Labour’s vote went up from 45.5% in 2010 to 54.8% in May this year.
For UKIP to win in Oldham West – or at least come close – it would have needed to take some of Labour’s share of the vote, either by attracting a substantial number of voters to switch from Labour to UKIP or through a large-scale stay at home by regular Labour supporters. This is what all the grim media reports from the constituency and all the punditry predicted would happen.
But it didn’t. Unlike in Heywood, Oldham West’s Labour voters came out in high numbers, even given the fall in the overall turnout for the byelection. Labour appears to have pulled votes either directly from the Tories, or possibly from UKIP itself if we assume most ex-Tories went for Farage’s mob. At any rate, it is Labour that gained far more as the Tory vote halved.
It seems that in Oldham West, voters were a lot more enthused by a Corbyn-led Labour Party than Heywood’s electorate was by the Miliband-led one.
This doesn’t mean that UKIP is finished – far from it. Oldham West is just one constituency. It would be dangerously complacent to ignore the huge number of votes the racist party attracted at the general election in May, or the potential knock-on effects as far right racist and fascist parties make gains across Europe.
But Oldham shows that those who believe the onward march of UKIP is irresistible are wrong. There is an increasing polarisation in politics in Britain and across Europe. Bitterness at austerity and the Westminster consensus can pull people to the far right, but anti-racist, anti-austerity, anti-war politics offer a pole of attraction to the left too.
Given the choice, a thumping majority of voters in this working class constituency ignored the dire predictions from the Westminster bubble, rejected the far right racist option and gave Corbyn’s Labour a landslide win over UKIP. Good.