Ian Swanson: Beware of reading too much into Oldham win

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IT’S always dangerous to read too much into by-elections. But there was so much anticipation of a likely Labour defeat in last week’s Oldham West and Royton contest that the result – a more-than-comfortable Labour win – cannot be dismissed. The majority of 10,722 and Labour’s increased 62 per cent share of the vote may not mean Jeremy Corbyn can count on being the next occupant of Number Ten, but it is proof, at the very least, that his brand of left-wing politics is not guaranteed to scare voters away.

The by-election, caused by the death of veteran left-wing MP Michael Meacher, was billed as the first electoral test of Mr Corbyn’s leadership.

The Holyrood elections, now less than six months away, are seen – along with those for the Welsh Assembly and English councils – are being seen as his next.

Mr Corbyn has had a rough ride since his thumping victory in Labour’s leadership election in the summer.

Critics never tire of arguing that despite winning nearly 60 per cent of the votes among party members and supporters, his views are out of tune with the electorate at large.

He has come under sustained fire from inside and outside the party over the people he has appointed to key positions, over his failure to sing the national anthem, a string of other alleged misjudgements and most recently his handling of the vote on bombing in Syria.

But despite the hype over the Syria vote, there are signs that the public viewed the free vote which he allowed Labour MPs positively rather than as a sign of weakness.

And in the end, a majority of the shadow cabinet and two-thirds of Labour MPs sided with Mr Corbyn in his opposition to bombing. Opinion polls show voters are also split on the issue.

Pundits had predicted Ukip was going to do well at Oldham, replicating the dramatic surge which took 
it to within 700 votes of victory in 
last year’s by-election in the neighbouring Middleton and Heywood constituency and possibly even winning the seat.

It was claimed Mr Corbyn’s policies were so unpopular among Labour’s core supporters that even one of the party’s safest seats was at risk. Ukip strategists sought to highlight the Labour leader’s “disdain for the monarchy and the military”.

His electoral credibility was said to rest on the result. Even as the polls closed, pundits predicted Labour might “cling on” to the seat despite a “strong challenge” from Ukip.

In the end Ukip were a distant second with just 23 per cent of the vote. By-elections are where third parties are meant to score upset victories, teaching the big parties a lesson, yet Ukip failed miserably here,

So what of next year’s Holyrood elections?

If by-election results cannot tell us too much about parties’ prospects at the next general election, neither can the Scottish Parliament vote.

Indeed, there are so many factors at play when it comes to gauging the likely outcome of next May’s Holyrood elections that Mr Corbyn’s popularity is pretty far down the list.

Labour’s dire position in Scotland predates his arrival on the scene and even the most popular, charismatic and acclaimed UK leader would probably struggle to make much impact.

The SNP looks set to storm to another overall majority, but that has more to do with Scottish Labour’s performance and the legacy of the independence referendum.

Beware commentators eager to draw the wrong lessons from how Scots vote next year.

ian.swanson@edinburghnews.com