Today voters in Oldham take to the polls to elect a new MP following the passing of Labour stalwart Michael Meacher.
The by-election, the first since the Labour leadership contest, is seen by many as a real challenge to Jeremy Corbyn. And doubtless, such sentiment has been bolstered by last night’s House of Commons vote on Syria. Despite the protestations of Shadow Chancellor John McDonnell (made on the Today programme this morning) that Mr Corbyn had carried the majority of the Parliamentary Labour Party, the reality was damning. A sizeable bloc of Labour MPs – and no less than 11 members of the shadow cabinet – voting against their leader is further evidence all is far from well within Labour HQ. And this is without mention of a barnstorming speech by Shadow Foreign Secretary Hilary Benn, which brought MPs to both applause and tears, and even sparked talk of Mr Benn as an alternative to Mr Cobyn (to the point a Twitter profile of @Hilary4Leader has been launched). UKIP leader Nigel Farage has also been quick to tout his party’s prospects in the by-election in a column for the Daily Telegraph.
But for all the rhetoric, an Oldham by-election defeat – or even a substantial cut in the Labour majority – would be damaging but not mortally so for Jeremy Corbyn at this stage of his leadership, which is still in its comparative infancy. Mr Corbyn and his supporters can still point to the size of his victory in September’s leadership contest as both evidence of his mandate and that he retains the support of swathes of the party faithful. For all the talk of how Labour MPs are investigating whether Mr Corbyn could be prevented from participating in another leadership election in the event of the proverbial palace coup, an insurrection of such scale at this stage would potentially do far greater harm to the Labour Party, and would divorce both the Parliamentary Party and any new leader from the grass roots.
And a new leader will need those grass root activists if they’re to have any hope of wresting control of Downing Street from the Tories in 2020.
The size of Labour’s majority (nearly 15,000) in Oldham West and Royston will make it incredibly difficult for UKIP, as probably Labour’s most likely challenger, to take the seat. A likely scenario is instead that Labour will retain, albeit with a reduced majority. And the potential challengers to Mr Corbyn’s leadership will likely keep their powder dry until local elections in 2016 at the earliest, when a poor Labour performance would enable a more damning indictment of the veteran MP.