Jeremy Corbyn’s first electoral test since becoming Labour leader began in earnest on Friday as he and the Ukip leader, Nigel Farage, trooped up to Oldham to woo voters in advance of a byelection next month.
Farage is basing Ukip’s whole campaign in Oldham West and Royton around voters’ perceived wariness of Corbyn, claiming that the Labour leader wants “complete freedom of movement” and to scrap immigration limits.
Corbyn, meanwhile, prefers to pretend that neither Farage nor Ukip exist. On Friday he made a two-minute speech about tax credits during a rather token visit to the constituency in support of Labour’s candidate, the Oldham council leader, Jim McMahon.
Visiting Oldham’s war memorial in the rain, the Ukip leader said McMahon was a Blairite and as such “very much at odds with Corbyn on very many things”. Farage suggested his party could take advantage of “a sort of civil war” being fought in Labour ranks to overturn the 14,738 majority won by the late Michael Meacher in May.
McMahon, 35, is a popular figure locally, having spearheaded a host of regeneration projects, including a new cinema and the restoration of the war memorial Farage visited. He beat local bus driver, Kashmir-born Mohammed Azam, to the Labour nomination on Thursday night.
Speaking at his campaign launch alongside Corbyn and Labour’s deputy leader, Tom Watson, McMahon promised to stand up for ordinary workers. “I was brought up by a really hardworking truck driver. He taught me that if you work hard, roll your sleeves up, you can get on in life,” said the 35-year-old, who did not go to university and left school at 16 to push trolleys at a cash and carry. “I see people working hard for really low wages, on zero-hours contracts, in really insecure employment. And that’s not the town I want. I want Oldham to be the best it can be for people who are willing to work hard and contribute.”
Farage began Ukip’s campaign earlier this week focusing on Corbyn’s “lack of patriotism”. But in an interview with the Guardian, McMahon said he would win a battle over patriotism, pointing out that he was proud to travel to Buckingham Palace next month to accept his OBE from the Queen and had raised £136,000 to restore the cenotaph in his Failsworth council ward.
Asked if Ukip had lost the patriotism argument with McMahon, Farage said: “Yeah, but he can’t [argue] about his party leader or the direction his party is going in … It doesn’t take away the fact that within the Labour party there is a sort of cultural civil war going on. They’ve chosen Corbyn. That’s what matters to us. As you well know, actually, the way British politics has gone, it’s ever more presidential, and actually people vote for or against party leaders even more than they vote for or against candidates.”
Watson said the notion of a civil war was nonsense and denied that the 3 December byelection was a referendum on Corbyn’s leadership. “I’ve been involved in byelections for 30 years, and they are generally not a referendum on anything. They’re usually about local issues,” he said, highlighting tax credit cuts as a key constituency issue.
Yet Farage said many voters in Oldham, where racial tensions caused riots 14 years ago, would be more concerned with Corbyn’s relaxed approach to immigration. Dorothy Featherstone, 76, was among the voters the Guardian spoke to on Friday to raise the issue. “I always voted for Labour because of Michael Meacher, but now he’s gone: no. I think there’s too many immigrants. They are ruining our country.”
Farage stoked local resentment by saying: “The fact is that on the immigration question, it would appear that [Corbyn] believes in ‘one world’. Now, I’ve read about this in exercise books in school, and what it basically means is, he believes in complete free movement of people and thinks that it was wrong in the last election that Labour advocated any limits at all. And I think that’s going to be a big issue.”
Voters in Oldham appear to be just as divided as Labour on Corbyn’s merits. Pledging her vote to Ukip, one 72-year-old woman said she would “sooner swim in shark-infested water than vote for him”. Norman Joyce, 83, said: “I hope Labour don’t win here. They don’t know how to live within their means. If I can’t afford something, I can’t have it. They should do the same … I certainly don’t like the new Labour leader. If I have got to protect myself, I want to have the means to protect myself. Corbyn wants to get rid of the means to protect our country. He’s going to leave us exposed.”
Yet others are sold. Smoking a cigarette before a job interview, 32-year-old employment adviser Matthew Bosson said he would be switching his allegiance from Green to Labour:. “I’d vote Labour now,” he said. “Prior to Jeremy Corbyn, I wouldn’t. I think he has re-embodied traditional Labour values.”
Bricklayer Peter Brennan, 56, said: “I’ve always voted Labour because I’m a socialist. Jeremy Corbyn is my sort of Labour party person. He’s leftwing. There’s too much centre ground in politics. Finally, we have an alternative.”
This article was written by Helen Pidd North of England editor, for theguardian.com on Friday 6th November 2015 18.14 Europe/Londonguardian.co.uk © Guardian News and Media Limited 2010