The Oldham West/Royton by-election


Some thoughts on the media getting things wrong, and risks of Labour drawing the wrong conclusions too

The official result is from Oldham Council at

I can’t think of any media commentator or pundit who called this by-election right. I can’t think of any polling organisation that did either. Alberto Nardelli is spot on in his blogpost here. Did the media try to (deliberately or subconciously) lead the voters to deliver the news story that they wanted to write, rather than writing about what was really happening on the streets? Because for me the tweet below spoke volumes:

In Cambridge on polling day in the general election, Cambridge Universities Labour Club mobilised 100 activists to get their vote out. That alone could have been the difference between Daniel Zeichner being Cambridge’s MP and Dr Julian Huppert staying in post. Multiply that number by seven and it’s a huge army of activists.

My past visits to Oldham

Oldham was one of the places I visited during my time in the civil service. In fact it was a place I visited on more than one occasion – meeting the late, great Michael Meacher on one such visit. His niece, Chloe, was also a former colleague in a previous policy area. During that time I fought tooth-&-nail to secure funding for this community facility in an area that at the time was once one of the most 40 economically deprived wards in the whole of England. With that facility also came a new health centre – the deal being me & my team would secure funding for the community centre and the local NHS would secure funding for the health centre. There were times when it nearly fell through, but we delivered a multimillion pound centre for a ward that really needed it. Out of all of the things I did in the civil service, working on this project (& securing the funding) is the one I’m most proud of.

It was during those visits that I got a real sense of what the people were like, what the economy was like and the challenges that everyone there faced. Observing how the different projects were being run also helped shape my future thinking about how much control Whitehall should have, thinks it has and does have on programs & projects being managed from the centre-bypassing local councils.

Young activists from the south take to Oldham

Puffles’ Twitterfeed picked up lots of tweets from various young Labour activists heading towards Oldham to campaign for the ultimate victor, Cllr Jim McMahon – leader of the council there. It got me thinking about the baptism of fire some of the first-time campaigners would receive if they got things wrong – especially given what the media was spinning in the years since I had last visited the town. But campaign they did – in their hundreds.

In the end, a well-run campaign with a huge number of activists campaigning for a well-known & liked local figure ended up sweeping away all that came before – raising Labour’s share of the vote from 56% to 62% on a 40% turnout on a cold, rainy December day in Greater Manchester.

It wasn’t all good news for Labour though

Note campaigning dynamo Abby Tomlinson in the series of tweets here

The response was by no means a unified pro-Labour one. Furthermore, a few people in & around the local Labour Party also informed me that such was the scale of the operation from outside activists that local activists felt sidelined, despite offering to help early on.

Evaluating the campaign

This is one perhaps for Tom Watson to have a look at as deputy – in particular given the furore around social media and politics at the moment. (There have been a number of news items on social media abuse and politics this week on telly). It might be worth setting up a web page with a series of questions to invite activists to submit their experiences of campaigning – and perhaps going beyond the ‘how was it for you?’ type questions (or ‘what worked/didn’t work?’). I’d be fascinated to see people’s descriptions of ‘what problems did you see in Oldham that were similar/different to the ones you see in your own local area?’ for example.

Labour won’t have 700 activists from outside bussed in to help on poling day in Oldham in the next general election. Well…not unless there is a completely unexpected surge in membership in political parties. So how much can you read into the result?

“A disaster for Labour moderates!”

So said Conservative commentator Tim Mongomerie (who I otherwise reasonably rate with the caveat that he’s open about what his politics is). But then ‘Labour moderate’ Liz Kendall MP (who I also quite like) happened to be campaigning out in Oldham for Labour…

…as was Tristram Hunt MP, whose book on the history of local government in England is a masterpiece – you can get it here (again, a book that has shaped my thinking on local government).

“So…did any socialist firebrands turn up?”

If you mean John McDonnell MP, then yes, he campaigned in Oldham as well.

Note Ms Tomlinson is in photos with both Mr McDonnell and Dr Hunt! There’s also a chance that she could be studying in Cambridge next year – in which case Cambridge Universities Labour Club won’t know what’s hit it!

“So…Cllr McMahon managed to unite disparate and quarrelling strands/wings of the Labour Party in a cold, rainy miserable autumn on the back of a general election defeat?”

For me, the two most important things for Labour were that his campaign gave hundreds of activists a feeling of what it is like campaigning when Labour is united behind a single cause or person. The second is that more and more people are beginning to call out the mainstream media on what they are reporting and how they are reporting it. It’s made all the more easier for those of us calling out the mainstream media because so many commentators predict what will happen, and find themselves in an awkward situation when things don’t work out that way.

“What about the other parties?”

UKIP are leading with complaints about postal votes – a legitimate issue but one they have been accused of using it to divide communities for political ends. As it turned out, even if all of the postal votes were removed from the total, Labour would still have one with a majority of several thousand. As it was, Cllr McMahon’s majority was over 10,000 votes.

For the Liberal Democrats, Tim Farron didn’t hide his disappointment in this message to activists. They got just over 1,000 votes and lost their deposit – as did The Greens with 249 and Sir Oink-a-lot of the Monster Raving Loony Party with 141 votes. The latter did manage to end up trending in the UK for a short while on Twitter though. Clouds and silver linings eh?


As it turned out, ‘Asians’ was trending not because of Oldham but because of random content featuring people from the Far East.


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