When the result of Oldham West and Royton by-election was announced, it almost seemed laughable that a Labour victory in one of its safest seats in the country was ever questioned. But previously unheard of swings in Scotland at the general election, much talk of the UKIP threat to Labour’s heartlands, and now a double-digit deficit for Labour in national voting intention, led many avid politics watchers to accept predictions of a photo finish.
Instead, Labour walked home comfortably, increasing their percentage majority, as well as their vote share to more than 60%. By-elections rarely shed much light on the potential outcome of a General Election – particularly when the next one is nearly five years away, but Jeremy Corbyn and Labour will take the victory and the respite from difficult headlines.
The biggest bad omen for Labour appeared to the Heywood and Middleton by-election from 2014, when UKIP seemingly came out of nowhere to within 617 votes of taking what was thought a safe Labour seat. It since spurred a number of prophesies that Nigel Farage’s party could eventually sweep away the North from Labour, just as the SNP hoovered up Scotland. However, just as it was always mistaken during the many years that UKIP was thought to be exclusively a drag on the Conservatives, the idea that UKIP is only an existential threat to Labour in the north has perhaps also been overcooked.
While the trauma of losing Scotland provides an emotive warning to Labour, an often-forgotten fact about the Heywood and Middleton by-election was that the party actually increased its own vote share.
As we argued at the time, one of the key trends revealed at Heywood and Middleton was not that UKIP were taking vast swathes of Labour voters (although they were undoubtedly taking some), but that UKIP had effectively become the principle outlet for anti-Labour voters in seats where no other party stood a chance of winning. It was also reflected in the result last night, with the increase in UKIP’s share of the vote appearing to come at the expense of the Conservatives, whose vote more than halved.
With the collapse of the Liberal Democrats, who previously were the effective opposition party in many seats in the North, the same trend saw UKIP chalk up dozens of second places in Labour safe seats at the General Election without ever really coming close to unseating a Labour MP.
Whatever Nigel Farage’s talk of targeting Labour voters and the UKIP threat in the North, it was always telling that all of party’s highest profile figures chose to contest Conservative-held seats in the South. In this sense UKIP’s strength in the North reflected Conservative, and not Labour, weakness. Their chance came from the Tories’ inability to mount a credible challenge to Labour there.
In some ways, the result therefore shouldn’t have been a surprise – in particular as Oldham and West Royton is a constituency with one of the highest proportion of people from DE social grade amongst its population. While there has been a weakening of social class as a determinant of voting intention, semi and unskilled labourers still form a key bedrock of Labour’s electoral support and the proportion of a constituency’s population from DE social grades is still a relatively good predictor of Labour’s vote share (as the graph below demonstrates).
Much has been made of UKIP also being a working class party – perhaps largely on the back of concern about immigration among this group. But although UKIP voters are not the well-to-do army majors of one-time caricature, there has also perhaps been some misunderstanding about their working class nature.
As the graph on the below shows, the size of the DE social grade population in a constituency has statistically no correlation with the size of the UKIP vote. There is in fact a slightly stronger relationship between the UKIP vote and the size of the C2 population (see second graph). Rather being cleaners or supermarket shelf stackers, those from C2 social grade tend to be skilled manual workers – electricians, plumbers – the “Mondeo man” of 1980s market research fame. In any case, it seems to suggest that UKIP are not the vector of working class political reawakening that some would suggest.
Of course the deeper concern among Labour figures about UKIP relates to their wider unease about the party’s relationship with the white working class. Again the sense of decline in this area can be overemphasised - a third of the working class habitually voted for the Conservatives throughout the twentieth century, so not winning every single vote among this group is by no means new. But the angst about UKIP seems to be an embodiment of concern that the two key parts of Labour’s electoral coalition are not only splitting but now becoming diametrically opposed to each other.
How does the party simultaneously hold together cosmopolitan, middle-class liberals who benefited immensely from globalisation, with an anti-elitist, white working class who have felt left behind by it?
This to some extent reflects why Oldham West and Royton saw such a thumping Labour victory, but the neighbouring Heywood and Middleton by-election was a much closer affair. Instead of a campaign focussed on abstract policies set in Westminster about “zero hours contracts” and government cuts, yesterday’s campaign focussed around the candidate of Jim MacMahon himself: a former apprentice who’d left school at 16, living in the constituency with an apparent deep and sincere care for the place he was hoping to represent.
Voters were not asked to vote for or against what was happening in London, seemingly a million miles away, but for a part of their local community. At a time when the key dividing line in politics appears no longer to be left vs right, but whether you think the net effect of globalisation is good or bad, it may perhaps be prudent to remember that old adage: “all politics is local”.