Outside Ukip HQ in the small town of Royton, in the Oldham West and Royton constituency, a skirmish is breaking out between pro-Corbyn Momentum activists and a group of ardent Ukippers. “Think about the future of our NHS before voting on Thursday!” calls Sandra, a middle-aged Londoner wearing a Santa cap emblazoned with “Vote Jeremy” badges.
She may as well be shouting into the wind. “U-kip, U-kip, U-Kip,” chant a group of teenagers – all too young to vote – in reply. “Jeremy Corbyn is a threat to our national security,” an older resident chips in, echoing the message on most of Ukip’s campaign leaflets for Thurday’s by-election.
The Momentum-ers move off. At Rumours, the pub next door (£2.50 a pint, happy hour 10am-8pm daily), Sandra has better luck – convincing a drinker outside that the only vote for the NHS is a vote for Labour. Corbyn doesn’t come up in conversation and neither does Labour’s Oldham West and Royton candidate, Jim McMahon.
Sandra is one of 150 activists put on the ground in Oldham East and Royton this weekend by Momentum, the grassroots network formed out of last summer’s “Corbyn for Leader” campaign. Coaches from London, Birmingham, Bradford, Leeds and Sheffield have been organised by Momentum, and the Labour Party mothership has another 300 volunteers arriving from around the country.
Shadow Chancellor John McDonnell arrived on Saturday and has been on the doorstep with McMahon since. Have any voters raised McDonnell’s Little Red Book incident, I ask Andrew Gwynne MP, who is organising Labour’s by-election campaign. “Not one,” he says. “It’s not much of an issue for Oldham.”
This looks suspiciously like something approaching Labour Party unity. Momentum activists are subordinate to the main office and given strict instructions on where to knock on doors. “We’re here under the banner of Labour, not Momentum,” says Deborah, an activist from Croydon. In Royton, however, the Ukip faithful are keen to paint this squarely as a battle against Jeremy Corbyn. Ukip candidate John Bickley is a by-election veteran, having lost both Wythenshawe and Sale, and Heywood and Middleton (more narrowly), to Labour last year. Bickley’s chances this time, says Ukip’s party director and campaign organiser Paul Oakden, are far improved.
“People in the community think a vote against Labour is a vote against Corbyn. Security is a big concern to people here, and Corbyn’s comments on shoot-to-kill landed very wide of the mark.”
Despite the narrowing odds on a Ukip victory – bookies are now offering 2/1, from 20/1 last week – Bickley has struggled to convince on local issues. He called for Oldham’s historic but derelict town hall to be saved from a £35m conversion into a cinema and restaurant complex, despite the renovation’s popular appeal to voters.
“It’s such an own goal it’s untrue,” Jim McMahon tells The Independent while taking a break from door-stepping in the rain. Oldham has never before had its own cinema and McMahon, currently leader of the council, was instrumental in securing funding for the regeneration of the town’s high street. “It’s the naiveté of someone who doesn’t know the area.
“John’s okay, he’s a reasonable guy. Ultimately I wish him well going back to Cheshire on December 4.”
Cheshire is a byword for “posh” in Oldham, and McMahon, born and raised in nearby Miles Platting to a father who drove trucks for a living, is keen to establish himself as the local candidate. “Before Michael Meacher died and this by-election was called I’d never been to the Houses of Parliament,” says McMahon. “I think people see the way I run the council here and count me as no-nonsense, get-on-with-it kind of guy.”
McMahon, 35, is certainly an eye-catching candidate. A councillor at 23, he was later appointed spokesman for every Labour councillor in Britain, and this year awarded an OBE for services to Oldham, as well as being tipped to become mayor of Manchester. Under his direction the council has tried to put an end to all-white schools – desegregation has been of massive importance here since Oldham’s race riots in 2001 – as well as establishing the first tramline between Manchester and Oldham.
Dressed in a long coat, sharp suit and leather gloves, he has the robust presence of an ascendant football manager, or a particularly well-heeled bouncer.
He voted for Liz Kendall in the Labour leadership election, so the big question today is where he stands on Corbyn.
At Eastern Pavilion Banqueting Hall, a Pakistani-Bangladeshi curry house hosting the Corbynistas who have been out-door-knocked that day, McMahon takes the stage, a garish red-and-white Momentum banner flying behind him. “I have no idea whether I’m to the left, the centre or shaking it all about,” he says, “but you can mark my words, Jeremy has my absolute full support.”
There is a big cheer from the audience and a palpable sense of relief. I ask McMahon afterwards for his views on Syria, and again he opts to take the Labour leader’s – if not the shadow Cabinet’s – line. “I totally agree with Jeremy that David Cameron has not put forward, as it stands, a compelling enough case to say what’s going to happen after military intervention.”
Noting Oldham voters’ apparent concerns over security, he does, however. add: “I haven’t got a principled objection to this. I think as a government you have to protect your citizens. But we can’t just embark on a folly.”
Afterwards, John McDonnell takes to the stage and heaps praise on McMahon, calling him “the socialist candidate” – an epithet the councillor himself would probably reject. But it is clear, speaking to McDonnell post-curry, that hopes are high of making McMahon a poster boy of new Labour Party unity.
“What I find very impressive about him is that he accepts that the leadership of the Labour Party has been determined by the democratic processes of the party,” says the shadow Chancellor. “He’s willing to work with Jeremy closely and I think he’s a good reflection of where the Parliamentary Labour Party is going to be.”
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