By-election special: Oldham West and Royton

by Jackie_South on November 29, 2015

Oldham West iconThursday sees the first Parliamentary by-election of this Parliament and with it the first true electoral test of Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership. With some electoral symmetry, Oldham was the scene of the first by-election of the previous Parliament, which saw Labour hold on to Oldham East and Saddleworth.

Below is the May General Election result for the constituency.Oldham West 2015 chart

It ought to be an easy win for Labour. Michael Meacher’s majority in the seat had never dipped below 20% since its 1997 creation and Meacher took 55% of the vote in May.

The next two graphs show the votes for each party and then the percentage vote share for each for the five elections since the constituency was created.

Votes

Oldham W 97-15 chart

 

Percentages

Oldham W 97-15 percent chart

That is not quite to say that this has always been straight-forward territory for Labour though. Meacher’s first contest in an earlier version of the seat – Oldham West – was in a 1968 by-election. Harold Wilson’s unpopularity at the time saw Meacher lose the seat to the Conservatives on a 17.7% swing. Meacher stood again in the 1970 general election and won with a 5% majority. He was never seriously under threat afterwards.

The constituency has had its controversies though. The 1997 boundary changes meant that Oldham West and Royton took in the majority of two former seats, Oldham West and Oldham Central & Royton. This led to a tense face-off between the two MPs – Meacher and Bryan Davies –resolved with the defeat of the latter in the selection process and his subsequent elevation to the Lords. Then racial tensions led to the BNP leader Nick Griffin standing in the constituency in 2001, gaining 16% of the vote.

The constituency

Oldham West wards

The constituency covers the western side of the Metropolitan Borough of Oldham, excluding the town of Failsworth (which is in the Ashton-under-Lyne constituency). Its southern boundary roughly follows the M60 whilst the M62 runs a little to its north. The area has had its share of famous MPs: William Cobbett, the Chartist John Fielden and, for a period in which he was both a Conservative and a Liberal, Winston Churchill.

There are three distinct parts to the constituency.

First: the western part of Oldham itself, including the town centre. These four wards (Coldhurst, Hollinwood, Medlock Vale and Werneth) are strongly Labour and have a significant Asian population, mainly Muslim, that make up over a quarter of the population there. If all of the constituency was like the western part of Oldham, Labour would have no difficulty at all in holding the seat in this election. But it is the other two parts of the seat that may cause more difficulty.

Royton, to the north of the constituency, is one of the country’s oldest mill towns – the first powered cotton mill was built there in the eighteenth century – although the last closed a generation ago. Royton was part of a constituency with Heywood until 1983, then the Oldham Central and Royton constituency before the current seat was established in 1997. Royton is a predominantly white (97%) working-class town.

The third town is Chadderton, another former milltown in the west of the constituency that sits along the Rochdale canal. Chadderton joined the industrial revolution much later than Royton or Oldham, waiting until the late nineteenth century. But it did it with gusto – 50 mills were in operation by the outbreak of the First World War. More recently, Chadderton has given the world both David Platt and Professor Brian Cox.

Chadderton is actually larger than Royton, with a population of 35,000 to Royton’s 20,000. Understandably, it has been a little irked at not getting recognition in the constituency name. “Irked” is an appropriate term here: the River Irk flows through the town. And its population getting irked might explain why Labour is worried about the forthcoming election: whilst Chadderton is marginally less white than Royton it is where UKIP have done best in the constituency: Labour only beat them by 7% in this year’s local election in Chadderton South ward.

Oldham West & Royton map

Election prospects

As the map below shows, Labour currently holds every council seat in the constituency, unlike the more politically varied Oldham East and Saddleworth next door.

Oldham ward cllrs

So, along with the general election result, this ought to be an easy win for Labour. They have made a smart choice in candidate too in Jim McMahon, the young, dynamic leader of Oldham Council. At the relatively tender-age of 35, he is not only leader of the council but also the Labour leader on the national Local Government Association and a member of the party’s National Executive Committee, and has an OBE. His ward is actually outside the constituency – in Failsworth to the south – but his name recognition should certainly be an asset in the election.

The challenge to Labour is clearly from UKIP. They were second in May, albeit Labour’s 34.2% majority would require a swing of a similar size to that 1968 by-election for Labour to lose. But that is slightly less than the 18.5% swing that UKIP gained in last year’s by-election in neighbouring Heywood and Middleton. The candidate in that election, John Bickley, is now running in this by-election. Bickley was also the candidate in the Wythenshawe and Sale East by-election.

Of course, the Heywood and Middleton swing was from a low base: UKIP’s vote in 2010 there was 2.6%. Labour’s share of the vote in that 2014 by-election stayed fairly static – it actually increased slightly.  What happened is that the votes for the Conservatives and Liberal Democrats fell away. If Labour’s May vote share of 55% holds in Oldham West and Royton, UKIP cannot win even if it picks up every vote from the Tories and Lib Dems.

The map below translates this May’s council elections against the general election result for the constituency to calculate Labour’s lead over UKIP in each ward in the general election. This shows that Labour will need particularly to get out its votes in its Oldham town heartland, such as those Muslim votes in Werneth and Coldhurst, whilst UKIP will want to try to build its support in Chadderton and Royton.

Oldham West Lab v UKIP map

The Conservatives and Liberal Democrats have picked candidates that stood in other Greater Manchester seats in May’s general election: James Daly (Bolton North East) and Jane Brophy (Altrincham and Sale West) respectively.

The Green candidate, Simeon Hart, stood in Oldham West and Royton in May, although his 839 votes in that contest is unlikely to worry the others much.

The Monster Raving Loony Party are going one better than McMahon’s OBE by standing a knight, assuming that Sir Oink A-Lot is a bone fide title.

The outcome?

My past predictions have not always been accurate, so I am treating this one with caution. Labour have been extremely concerned that they could lose the election to UKIP, but appear to be a little more confident now. Labour have also done surprisingly well in some council by-elections in recent weeks: winning Rochford in Essex this week and coming shockingly close in the Surrey County Council seat of Epsom West.

So, I think a fairly narrow Labour win is the most likely outcome.

That ought to be bad news for Jeremy Corbyn: this is a safe seat that should not be in question and a tight win will concern many in the party. But Miliband survived the near loss of Heywood and Middleton next door and so a win of any size is likely to result in a sigh of relief and whilst there will be criticism, it is unlikely to be fatal.

A loss to UKIP though is still a possible outcome: next week is likely to see fast-moving news about the Syria vote and this could undermine the Labour vote further in the next few days. Corbyn’s decision to stay away from the by-election this weekend is partly due to him needing to be in London at this critical time, but I guess that McMahon’s team are relieved rather than annoyed by his absence.

If UKIP win, the pressure for Corbyn will grow and urstwhile supporters will edge a little further towards the door. Unfavourable polls are one thing, losing Meacher’s seat to the immigrant-phobic hard right quite another. A UKIP victory is likely to be the beginning of te end of Corbyn’s leadership.

{ 6 comments… read them below or add one }

Witchfinder General December 1, 2015 at 6:28 am

“A UKIP victory is likely to be the beginning of the end of Corbyn’s leadership.”

It could be the beginning of the end of the Labour Party full stop.

Also calling UKIP “hard right” is a bit ridiculous, their not the NF.

Reply

Jackie_South December 1, 2015 at 9:55 am

Thanks Witchfinder.

I used the term ‘hard right’ – which could include parts of the Tory Party as well – rather than ‘far right’. The BNP would be the latter, but as UKIP is to the right of the Tories I think it must be fair to describe them as ‘hard right’.

Reply

Chris December 3, 2015 at 9:57 pm

Is it fair to describe UKIP as “Immigrant phobic” or “Hard Right” both point to smear tactics not real political argument.

Wanting the UK to control its own immigration policy is emphatically NOT “Immigrant phobic”, it is just basic common sense.

Reply

A Person December 3, 2015 at 10:21 pm

Try “erstwhile”.

Reply

Roy December 3, 2015 at 10:31 pm

That’s great background on the seat, thanks, I think Labour will hold the seat, narrowly.
UKIP will win the vote on the day.
Regardless of our political view, a review of the postal vote is required.

Reply

John Stone December 4, 2015 at 8:00 am

Well, that was a highly satisfactory result, I would say. Despite the ongoing barrage from the media, the Tories and some of his own colleagues, JC has now proven he can deliver a by rlection win, and presumably brought some UKIP voters back.

The PLP needs to stop griping now.

Reply

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