Could Oldham be the new Fulham?
This was a by-election some expected Labour would lose, with autumn turning to winter and the contest being billed largely as a referendum on pacifism. It was also a by-election that took place 82 years and a few weeks ago. This was the Fulham East by-election, against the backdrop of increasing public support for pacifism and with the Labour Party led by committed pacifist George Lansbury, who one historian describes as “an agitator of protest, not a politician of power”.
Today (back in 2015) Labour is rightly celebrating victory in another by-election some commentators seemed to be predicting it might lose, this time in Oldham West and Royton where the new MP Jim McMahon has impressed pretty much everyone who has ever heard him speak. He’s already an important player in the Labour movement and will become increasingly more so. It’s a pity UKIP are stuck in the 1950s or they might have gone back to that election in 1933 to discover that Lansbury sent a personal message to the voters of Fulham East calling for complete disarmament, including a pledge to disband the army. With this in mind, perhaps UKIP might have thought twice about the “he wants to abolish the army” attacks on Jeremy Corbyn in Oldham (which they tastefully mocked up to look like a Labour leaflet).
Oldham West and Royton is also a victory for Labour’s much maligned “ground game” which took an unfair pounding post-election, while the party refused to look at the deeper reasons beyond canvassing as to why it did not form a government on 8th May. The Labour Party - street by street, door by door - is the best campaigning organisation in Britain, May 2015 simply proved it is not a miracle worker.
Individual by-elections are snapshots, which journalists get excited about but that rarely tell us much. If they did, Ed Miliband would currently be Prime Minister having finally won power back for Labour after more than 30 years of Tory / SDP rule. But the comparison with Fulham East has made me think of the similarities between Lansbury and Jeremy Corbyn. Lansbury is revered in our house. My partner, a “proper” cockney, born within the sound of Bow bells speaks of his local record with the same passion as that the Corbyinistas shout “Jez we can” with. The similarities are worth mentioning , Lansbury wasn’t above a slogan; with “Poplarism” becoming the title of his campaign for equalisation of rates for poor boroughs while he was a councillor in Poplar, Corbyn served on Haringey Council in the 1970s before entering Parliament. Lansbury’s leadership was dominated by foreign affairs and defence, as Corbyn’s has been thus far and both can be described as anti war. Both are “bearded” Labour leaders, though Corbyn forgot about Lansbury when he called Kier Hardie “the last bearded man to lead our party” in his October 2015 conference speech. There are of course significant differences too, not lease faith, Corbyn is an agnostic while Lansbury was a committed Christian.
But of course, Lansbury never became Prime Minister and the electoral highlight of his three years as leader was the Fulham East by-election.
Between 2010 and 2015 under the leadership of Ed Miliband (who we learnt this week was in fact a Tory), Labour was good at by-elections, particularly in the first half of the parliament where most significantly it picked up Corby, a bellweather New Town that Labour would lose again in the 2015 general election. The second half of the parliament though began to give an indication of the problems that would come in the general election, our collapse in Clacton in 2014 and not really being in contention in Rochester and Stroud the same year demonstrated the softness of sections of the Labour vote to UKIP and a reluctance from swing voters to give Miliband their final seal of approval at the ballot box. Of the 21 by-elections in the last parliament, Labour won 13, overwhelmingly in safe Labour areas.
Does any of this mean anything and does it matter? It means the people of Oldham West and Royton have got a very good MP this morning and that matters. Jeremy Corybn has got a bit of respite from a normally negative press and a few political commentators are feeling a bit sore after over playing the possibility Labour could have lost the seat. But there remains the at times uncomfortable truth that Labour must speak to working people across the country, and that includes people who didn’t vote for us last time, in areas we have struggled to do well in over the last decade.
Hilary Benn’s speech on Wednesday night was impressive not because of his oratory, it was impressive because for the first time in a long time a Labour figure genuinely had a go at trying to convert people, (even if it was those inside our own party) who didn’t agree with their point of view. Jeremy Corbyn’s Milwall strategy (No one likes us, we don’t care) can be admirable but it didn’t change many minds. Ed Miliband, that Tory by-election winning fiend, did change people’s minds and prevent military action in Syria in 2013.
For what’s it’s worth I was and remain unconvinced that military action makes a material difference or that there is sufficient strategy for what happens after the bombs fall, but if I’m honest that view is in spite of the Labour leadership not because of it. Hilary Benn laid out his case passionately but respectfully, the Labour leadership deployed Ken Livingstone and Diane Abbot to call people names and issue threats. People on the left (in which I include myself) need to realise, these people do our cause no favours at all, and worse they are going to do it serious damage in the long term.
To continue this tortuous comparison between Lansbury and Corbyn, it’s also worth saying that Hilary Benn is not Ernie Bevin, whose speech at Labour Party conference though badly received in the conference hall, pre-empted Lansbury’s resignation as Labour Party leader.
Agitator of protest or party of power? Oldham West and Royton does not provide an answer yet to Labour’s big question. Perhaps most importantly it shouldn’t let Labour hide from the inevitable, uncomfortable truth that sooner or later we will need to speak to people who don’t agree with us or haven’t made up their mind on us, and we’ll need to convince them we offer a positive difference to their lives and to Britain.