Jim McMahon, the 35-year-old leader of Oldham council, will swap the town hall for Westminster after persuading 17,209 people to vote for him. Turnout was 40.26%, down from 59.6% at the general election in May, but not an embarrassment on a very rainy Thursday in December. McMahon increased Labour’s share of the vote to 62.27%, up 7.49%.
Ukip’s John Bickley, a Cheshire-based businessman, was runner-up, on 6,487. It was his fourth second place in Greater Manchester in less than two years, having lost out to Labour in byelections in Wythenshawe and Sale East in February 2014 and Heywood and Middleton in October 2015, failing again there in May’s general election.
The Conservatives were third on 2,596. The Liberal Democrats 1,024, the Greens 249. The Monster Raving Loony party were last, on 141.
In a statement McMahon said: “I am delighted to have been elected tonight. Michael Meacher was a close friend of mine and he was admired by people across the country as someone who worked tirelessly for the causes he believed in. I will do my best to live up to those high standards.
“My sole focus has always been on what is best for Oldham, I want to make our town a better place for my sons to grow up in and make it somewhere they can be proud of, my priority will always be Oldham.
“We also need to remember what is currently at stake under this Tory government. While everyone is looking the other way they are quietly pushing through cuts that will change the face of towns like Oldham.
“The sooner we kick the Tories out and get a Labour government back in the better for all of us. The hard work starts now.”
McMahon’s clear win will be cheered by both the Corbyn and non-Corbyn factions of the Labour party. The former will see his victory as a vindication of the direction of the party under the new leader. The latter will be relieved, seeing McMahon as a pro-business pragmatist.
His victory in the early hours of Friday morning was viewed by many present as a triumph in spite of Corbyn than because of him. Though always polite about the Labour leader on the campaign trail, McMahon refused to tell reporters who he had voted for in the leadership election. But one friend confirmed he is “so not a Corbynista”.
After his victory, McMahon said of Corbyn: “I think he is actually a very reasonable, genuine guy.”
The byelection was called following the death of Michael Meacher, a left-winger who had represented the constituency in its various guises for 45 years. He died aged 75 on 20 October, shortly after seeing a dream fulfilled with Corbyn’s leadership triumph. Once described as “Tony Benn’s vicar on earth” because of his evangelical zeal for far-left politics, Meacher was one of the very few Labour MPs who nominated Corbyn for the leadership because they actually wanted him to win.
In May’s general election, when key Labour figures such as Ed Balls were losing their seats, Meacher increased his majority to 14,738, netting 23,630 votes, with Ukip trailing in second on 8,892.
McMahon had to contend with Corbyn’s unpopularity among many voters, particularly the white working class targeted by Ukip. During the month-long campaign Corbyn made life difficult by making a string of remarks which failed to convince many of the virtues of his “new politics”. Canvassers reported voters slamming doors in their faces, angry after Corbyn suggested the US military was wrong to kill Isis terrorist Mohammed Emwazi (he should have faced trial, said Corbyn) and then, three days after the Paris attacks, saying UK police should not have a “shoot to kill” policy for known terrorists.
One of McMahon’s supporters, a Labour party councillor in Greater Manchester, described Labour’s byelection strategy as: “Jim, Jim, Jim-Jim-Jim. No mention of the other fella.” Campaign literature focussed firmly on McMahon’s local achievements: the old town hall being turned into a cinema and restaurant complex; his campaign to renovate all of the war memorials in the borough.
Though Ukip made hay by criticising Corbyn, they struggled to land blows on McMahon, who is widely liked in Oldham. While Corbyn made headlines by failing to sing the national anthem, McMahon is no republican, telling the Guardian he was proud to have been awarded an OBE by the Queen and would be taking his family to Buckingham Palace later this month to receive it.
Born in Miles Platting, a deprived area of Manchester, in 1980, McMahon rose to the top of local politics from humble beginnings. The son of a truck driver, he left school at 16 and pushed trollies at a supermarket. After Tony Blair won the election in 1997, he won a apprenticeship as a technician at the University of Manchester in 1997 and went back to study at Oldham college. On the campaign trail he told voters of having to work three jobs to put food on the table after his first of two sons was born in 2002.
In 2003 he was elected a councillor, becoming leader of the opposition in 2008, aged 28. Three years later he became one of the youngest council leaders in the country after Labour regained control of Oldham. He immediately made an impression by scrapping the leader’s chauffeur-driven car and credit card – two perks of the job he deemed superfluous.
Widely expected to try to be the first elected mayor of Greater Manchester when elections take place in 2017, he surprised many by running in the byelection instead. “I’ve never been tempted to run for parliament before,” he said. “But it’s Oldham and I couldn’t not. There is so much I can do for this town in Westminster.”
This article was written by Helen Pidd North of England editor, for theguardian.com on Friday 4th December 2015 07.11 Europe/Londonguardian.co.uk © Guardian News and Media Limited 2010