Friday, December 04, 2015

Will Oldham change the Labour narrative?

Until yesterday, the media narrative for the Labour party since the general election has been one of unparalleled disaster.  This only increased with the election of the very left-wing Jeremy Corbyn as Labour leader, a man whose main political work was as a serial rebel and protest march speaker.  Wholly unelectable, rejoiced the largely right-wing media in mock-sepulchral tones.  And he didn't do the things that politicians should do, like pander to the media march - this is a leader who committed the cardinal sin of failing to turn up to an Andrew Marr interview.  Honestly, where were his priorities?

Corbyn hasn't been much of a hit in the Commons, the place where the Westminster village gathers, and has rather annoyed regular Westminster watchers by taking the sting out of Prime Minister's Questions.   He doesn't even seem very interested in Westminster occasions, as if somehow they don't really impact upon his own supporters and voters in the constituencies.

Then, of course, there came the disaster of the Syrian air strikes debate - or more accurately ISIS air strikes debate (or Daesh, or IS, or whatever acronym we choose in the fond belief that they're really very interested in what we call them).  Corbyn, a man of principle even if he does look eternally miserable on television, remained opposed to strikes and wanted his parliamentary party to join him.  An undeniably inexperienced leader, he failed to properly bring his colleagues on side by largely ignoring them, and his media management remains atrocious. He gave a poor if honest speech in the debate, was eclipsed by his own shadow Foreign Secretary but helped by David Cameron's ludicrous mis-step in having spoken about terrorism's fellow travellers.

Yet while the largely hostile media revelled in Mr. Benn's fine speech (most OTT love letter was probably that of Labour refusenik Dan Hodges in the Telegraph) the voters in Oldham West were preparing to deliver a more significant verdict - that of Labour's heartland voters.

Oldham is an early test of Mr. Corbyn's electoral potency.  This may be a man who won a huge grassroots majority in his election as Labour leader, but the depreciation of his image and apparently hopeless attributes as leader have been consistently trumpeted by a hostile media.  Even yesterday, there were serious hopes that Labour would be cuckolded by UKIP in Oldham - take this piece by the Spectator's Sebastian Payne (soon to move to the FT).  Payne even visited Oldham, escaping the Westminster bubble for a day, and his finely tuned village antenna revealed these truths.  That "Corbyn's leadership appears to be dragging the party towards electoral oblivion", that there were signs on the ground that "all is not well for Labour", that UKIP's John Bickley could be the party's second MP and believes "he has struck gold with Jeremy Corbyn".  On it went.  Despite visiting Labour headquarters in Oldham young Mr. Payne still reported that UKIP could win the seat, Corbyn was a disaster on the doorstep, every time John McDonnell spoke he turned more voters towards UKIP.

But who can blame the Spectator's correspondent?  He was hardly alone in his assessment or in his Westminster assumptions that Corbyn was simply not proving up to the task, and a single visit north was not going to alter that.

Then the voters had their say.  It wasn't a big turnout, but at around 40% it was not disastrously small either.  Labour won, and won handily with a 10,000 majority.  And Labour's share of the vote actually increased.  So Jeremy Corbyn, the man who won the Labour leadership with the largest popular vote ever granted a party leader, can actually win parliamentary elections too it seems.  It's almost as if he might actually be in tune with the thinking of supporters of a left-wing party.

The vote on air strikes, too, was instructive.  While there were some headline Labour figures opposing their leader's stance, and much of the media narratvie has been about a wretchedly divided party, only 8 of Labour's 53 new MPs supported air strikes.  The vast majority agreed with Corbyn.

Labour is undoubtedly a party in turmoil.  But their new leader's key attribute is that he reaches well beyond the confines of an insular Westminster village, and the civil war on his parliamentary benches may well be more of an indication of how out of touch the more traditional, or mainstream, MPs are than any suggestion of Corbyn's own isolation.  A Corbyn led party has won a by-election that the common narrative said would be very close or potentially a disastrous loss.  He has won it well.  He keeps the loyalty of his newly elected MPs - and the majority of his shadow cabinet, and the majority of his other MPS - in a highly divisive vote.  When we next read about Jeremy Corbyn in the press, if the narrative doesn't change as a result of Oldham we should at least be highly sceptical of any stories projecting him as an inevitably election losing catastrophe.

And the Tories should sit up and take notice.  While their party gets deeper into revelations of bullying leading to suicide in their retrograde youth movement, they cannot take any comfort from the complacently driven canard that the next general election is theirs for the taking.