The significance of Labour’s big Oldham victory for British politics

Jim McMahon and Jeremy Corbyn

Labour’s victory against the Tories in the Oldham by-election was a landslide. Labour’s share of the vote rose by 7.5%, the Tories’ fell by 9.7%.

This big victory was won by Jeremy Corbyn and his national team and Jim McMahon and his Oldham team working professionally together.

Ukip hammered the Tory vote not Labour’s. This was the exact reverse of predictions of analysts such as Tom Harris of the Telegraph who had proclaimed under one of the week’s worst judged headlines ‘Jeremy Corbyn’s Labour has no answer to the Ukip squeeze.’

And of course the claim by Blairites such as John Rentoul and John McTernan that Labour led by Jeremy Corbyn was ‘unelectable’ bit the dust.

The Oldham result has major significance for British politics.

Most immediately Oldham shows that the claim Labour’s vote will be swept away by a racist Ukip tide is a myth. Indeed it is Jeremy Corbyn’s total refusal to launch the ‘immigrant bashing’ campaigns that periodically disfigured Ed Miliband’s period of leadership that is the best chance to defeat Ukip.

Naturally this does not mean that there is not a serious challenge by racists in Britain – and Labour in Oldham was aided by the significant proportion of its electors who were Asian (who would have been less likely to vote if Labour had made concessions to racist Ukip). But Oldham confirms that it is by making no compromise with racism that Ukip will be defeated.

More strategically Oldham gives Jeremy Corbyn, his supporters and his team the chance to consolidate their position. The key issue in British left wing politics is not, as some claim, to ‘prevent Corbyn going to the right’ or ‘hold Corbyn to account’. The main divide in British politics is to defend Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership of the Labour Party from the vicious and total war launched on it by the British establishment, more accurately its ruling class, that was seen in the last three months and which will continue every day Jeremy Corbyn leads the Labour Party.

For the stakes are enormous. If Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership of the Labour Party can be consolidated it means one of the main parties of British politics, in fact one of the main left wing parties in Europe, is on a course totally opposed to the interests of Britain’s establishment. This was clearly seen in Labour’s victory on tax credits and the fierce opposition of Jeremy Corbyn to the bombing of Syria.

The consolidation of Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership of the Labour Party would therefore transform British politics and indeed be an event of global significance. Not ‘holding Corbyn to account’ but ‘defending Corbyn’s leadership of the Labour Party’ is the key divide in left wing politics.

Jeremy Corbyn,his supporters and his team face a tremendous challenge in this. They had to put together a staff capable of leading a mass party extremely rapidly under daily assault by a ruling class deploying every weapon it can find. They also have to deal on a daily basis with internal sabotage by Blairites and the difficulty of being a minority in the PLP and Shadow Cabinet.

The good thing about the Oldham by-election is that it gives them more time to do consolidate their position.

Naturally some initial difficulties occurred after Jeremy Corbyn’s election with some small things allowed to obscure the big picture. For example who cares if Jeremy Corbyn needs to kiss the hand of Elizabeth Windsor from time to time!

But on the big things Jeremy Corbyn and his team got it right. They imposed a stinging defeat on the Tories over tax credits. Jeremy Corbyn remained implacable in his opposition to war in Syria. These are the type of big issues which really count in British politics. The more Jeremy Corbyn’s supporters and team can focus attention on these the more they will succeed in driving back the Tory attacks.

There are also the signs of advances on the strategic way forward. John McDonnell, by saying he is not a ‘deficit denier,’ is right to throw out the old confused so called ‘Keynesian’ thinking which was economically wrong and therefore also destroyed Labour’s economic credibility – although to be fair this ‘Keynesianism’ actually had nothing to do with the positions of Keynes himself (or Marx). It is necessary for Labour to clearly distinguish between current expenditure, which should be funded by taxation and not borrowing, and investment – which yields a direct or indirect return and can be funded by borrowing.

Building on that clear strategic framework John McDonnell’s pledge that a Labour government would raise infrastructure investment to a minimum 3.5% of GDP is a first key practical plank which can form the cornerstone for a credible Labour economic policy. It needs to be supplemented by greater emphasis on the creation of a National Investment Bank – which will also help more people to concretely understand the significance of Labour’s new economic policies.

What a contrast all this provides to the disaster that would have occurred if the right had been leading the Labour Party! They already capitulated in the summer on tax credits. They voted for a war that is not only wrong but will end in a disaster in Syria. Their strategy for fighting the challenge of Ukip in Oldham would probably have been to present Labour as ‘tough on immigrants’ – thereby allowing Ukip to set the terms of the by-election and boosting its vote. All these disasters were avoided because Jeremy Corbyn and his supporters lead Labour.

There will be many challenges to come. The conclusion the ruling class will draw from Oldham is that it must attempt to find new ways to undermine Jeremy Corbyn.

But the stakes are enormous. We now have a leadership of Labour that defeated Tories on tax credits and welfare – not capitulated to them. A Labour leadership that fought against the war in Syria – not one that endorses it. And now a British Labour leadership and local leaders in Oldham who have won a decisive electoral victory. If this dynamic can be maintained British politics will be transformed.

This therefore has to be the attitude of the left to Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership of the Labour Party: not to ‘hold it to account’ but to help it anyway that is possible. This does not mean that differences on the left will not exist from time to – that is inevitable. But they must be conducted wholly and exclusively in a framework and in a manner that seeks to strengthen and not undermine Jeremy Corbyn’s position.

Oldham has given more time to do that. That time must be used as wisely as possible by the left.

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This article by John Ross, on Labour’s victory in Oldham, was originally published on Facebook.