Endorsing his party’s candidate in the Oldham West and Royton poll – the businessman and Ukip byelection veteran John Bickley – Farage questioned Corbyn’s patriotism, making jibes about the Labour leader’s failure to sing the national anthem or show the Queen due reverence, and the fact he prefers fizzy water over a good honest pint.
“Is Jeremy Corbyn patriotic? Does he believe in this country? Does he believe in the people of this country?” he said at the Railway Hotel pub in Royton on Tuesday morning.
“I feel that we really, really can bite very, very hard into that old Labour vote who frankly bear little in common with the north London, trendy hard-left Labour man.
“This very much amongst Labour voters is going to be a test of: does Corbyn connect outside of north London and a very narrow, pretty extreme leftwing group of people? And all the indications that we’ve got is that very large numbers of Labour people are frankly pretty appalled by many of the stances that Mr Corbyn takes.”
Ukip’s strategy appears to be to appeal to Oldham’s working class by campaigning against “open door” immigration, encouraging activists from around the country to flood the constituency, which currently has only 80 Ukip branch members.
Rallying a small crowd of around 20 activists in the back room of the pub, Paul Oakden, a party organiser, said Ukip had almost won in nearby Heywood and Middleton last year, where Bickley helped reduce a Labour majority of almost 6,000 to 611.
That poll was held on the same day as the Clacton byelection, won for Ukip by Douglas Carswell following his defection from the Conservatives. “The thing to remember is we had the same team working on the campaign as we had in Heywood and Middleton.
The difference is that this time there isn’t a ceremony going on in Clacton so we can, I hope, expect considerably more support on the ground here from our activist base,” said Oakden.
Bickley, who also came second to Labour in Wythenshaw and Sale East, admits he has a “mountain to climb” to overturn the majority of Michael Meacher, who was the Labour MP for Oldham West and Royton for 45 years until his death, aged 75, on 20 October.
But he says the large numbers of Pakistani and Bangladeshi voters in parts of the constituency, such as Werneth – where just 23.4% of the population are white – will not be a barrier. He said the party’s policy on “controlled immigration”, based on an Australian-style points system, found favour with as many minority ethnic voters as white ones.
Yet Ukip’s strategy to target the Labour leader looked shaky after speaking to shoppers in Royton’s precinct on Tuesday, many of whom claimed never to have heard of Corbyn. Three drinkers enjoying a smoke outside one pub politely shook Farage’s hand, only to admit later that they had no idea who he was talking about.
“I don’t vote,” said 74-year-old Colin. “They all piss in the same pot, love.”
One immigrant hoping to win Colin’s vote on 3 December could be Mohammed Azam, a 56-year-old bus driver from Pakistan, who is vying with the youthful local Labour council leader to be selected as Labour’s candidate.
A bus driver for 37 years, Azam came to Britain from Kashmir aged 10 and was a local Labour councillor during the Oldham riots of 2001. He claims to have been instrumental in repelling the far-right British National party when it tried to “take over” Oldham after the riots and is presenting himself as the Corbynista’s candidate.
“Are my politics about what Jeremy Corbyn’s are about? I would say yes,” Azam said.
Azam’s chief rival is Jim McMahon, 35, who has led Oldham council since 2011. Eyebrows were raised when he threw his hat in the ring because he was widely seen as frontrunner to become Greater Manchester’s first elected mayor in 2017 – a job most see as holding significantly more power than an opposition MP.
McMahon is the more centrist candidate; he rejects political labels, preferring instead to emphasise his “ordinary working class” upbringing. He is also challenging Ukip to question his patriotism.
“My grandfather served in the army, my father and my partner’s fathers were in the Territorial Army. I raised money to restore my local cenotaph. On 18 December I will be going with pride to London to collect my OBE from the Queen and bring it back to Oldham as a local boy done good. If they want to pick a fight on patriotism, bring it on.”
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