“Jim, Jim, Jim-Jim-Jim. No mention of the other fella.” That’s how one Greater Manchester councillor summed up Labour’s campaign message in Oldham West and Royton, where a byelection will be held next Thursday.
The Jim in question is Jim McMahon, the popular 35-year-old leader of the town council, who is hoping to fight off Ukip and hold the seat following the death of Michael Meacher last month.
The “other fella” is Jeremy Corbyn, who was absent for the first three weeks of the race, barring a three-minute photo opportunity in front of placard-waving party faithful right at the start.
Corbyn is not desperately popular in Oldham, described variously as “dangerous”, “a lunatic throwback” and an “arrogant idiot” by Labour voters past and present during the four visits the Guardian made to the constituency in recent weeks.
There were few tears shed inside the Humdinger, a dodgy old pub which has become McMahon’s campaign headquarters, when Corbyn cancelled a planned visit on Friday, staying instead in Westminster to attempt to broker peace in the war raging within his party over Syria.
A day earlier the Guardian had asked McMahon’s campaign manager, Andrew Gwynne, the perennially cheerful MP for nearby Denton, whether Corbyn was an asset or a liability during the byelection. He paused just long enough to contrive a way to dodge the question. “He’s the leader, isn’t he? We are running this campaign based on local issues.”
McMahon was more diplomatic. “I think having a leader of a political party that people know, and know as a man of principle and substance, is overwhelmingly going to be a positive in the election,” he said in an interview on Thursday, adding: “I don’t think at the moment it’s going to be a deciding factor in the election.”
He prefers to talk about the regeneration he has overseen as leader, connecting the town to Manchester with the Metrolink tram and an ongoing project to turn the majestic old town hall into a cinema and restaurant complex.
Most analysts agree that if McMahon holds Oldham as expected (albeit with a majority much reduced from Meacher’s 14,738), it will be largely thanks to the 20% of the constituents who are British Pakistani or British Bangladeshi, traditional Labour voters who are far more likely than their white counterparts to turn out and vote. On Featherstone Road, near Oldham’s central mosque, everyone the Guardian asked said they were voting Labour.
Asked who they were voting for, some answered not Labour but “Jim”, widely admired for bettering himself, having left school at 16 with what he describes as “ropey” qualifications. McMahon pushed trollies in a cash and carry and then did an apprenticeship as a technician at Manchester University before entering politics when he was 23 and already a father.
Dishing up lamb biriani after Friday prayers in the Sabah cafe, Mohammed Aziz, 36, said: “Jim will win, guaranteed. Look at what he’s done in the town centre. He’s a good man – he was brought up in a council estate like the rest of us, not like David Cameron and all the millionaires.”
Aziz, who is of Bangladeshi heritage, was less complimentary about Corbyn. “I think he’s not fit for 21st century politics. It’s old thinking. Look at what he’s doing on Syria. The Conservatives want to bomb Isis; he doesn’t want to go there. But we need to control the Isis threat now, otherwise they are going to do even more bad.”
He also disagrees with Corbyn’s stance on shooting to kill known terrorists. “If you can confirm they’re terrorists, shoot them. As long as we don’t end up with a situation where they shoot the wrong guy, like with that Brazilian man after 7/7 [Jean Charles de Menezes, who was mistakenly killed by police following the London bombings].”
Student nurse Amina Rafique, 21, admitted she hadn’t even heard of Corbyn but that she would vote Labour. She does not support Syrian airstrikes. “I think they can’t locate where Isis is, so bombing would cause innocent people to lose their lives. So many Syrian children are already dying daily because of bombings.”
In Chadderton shopping precinct, 72-year-old Michael Lawson, secretary of the Chadderton Historical Society, said he too was voting for “Jim”. But that if Corbyn was still Labour party leader come the next election he may switch to Ukip as a protest. “He worries me, that man. One thing I’d say in his favour is that he sticks by his principles. But I think he’s a bit out of date for the 21st century.”
Lawson agreed that it was right not to rush to war in Syria – “I don’t want us to make the same mistakes as in Iraq” – but that some action had to be taken. “What I want to see is a real coalition, with the United Nations and moderate Islamic countries. I think Corbyn is being a little bit over-cautious. People are starting to think ‘whose side are you on?’ He seems to be kicking over the traces, the accepted conventions, like not singing the national anthem.”
Ukip is campaigning largely on an anti-Corbyn ticket, falsely claiming the Labour leader is in favour of totally open borders. Farage’s enthusiastic army are certainly convincing many white voters to switch from Labour.
Peter Jones, 69, a retired school teacher, said he voted Ukip for the first time in May. “I used to vote Labour – Paul Foot was my man. I’m a socialist. I switched out of sheer desperation. The two main parties have been taking the mickey out of working people for too long. I believe in fair play, strongly, and you can see Labour kidded the working man all the way.”
But canvassers from all parties agree it is local issues that vex voters more than national or international ones. As Andrew Stephenson, MP for Pendle in east Lancashire, put it: “I think to many people in the street it’s still quite abstract whether we should engage in Syria. There are far more people on the doorstep who care about fly-tipping.”
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