Labour pinning hopes on 'working class' Jim McMahon in Oldham by-election


Jeremy Corbyn's electoral credibility rests on the shoulders of 35-year-old council leader Jim McMahon as the first week of campaigning begins in the Oldham by-election.

Ukip calls it a referendum on the Labour leader's "trendy" left politics, questioning if it connects with 'Old Labour' voters - the white working class, in a town with a growing immigrant population.

Nigel Farage's party came a distant second to Labour in May's general election in Oldham West and Royton, but their vote surged by 17%.

The Ukip leader symbolically wrapped his party in the flag from the off as he launched their campaign citing immigration the number one issue.

He questioned Mr Corbyn's patriotism, his alleged "cosying up" to the IRA, his views on the Falklands Islands and the Monarchy, before visiting the town's Cenotaph.

Across town Labour's election bandwagon was getting off to a bumpy start as Mr Corbyn launched the campaign as news broke his senior aide, Andrew Fisher, had been suspended by the party.

The Labour leader, brought-up in a Shropshire manor house, stood alongside the moderate, pro-business trucker's son, selected as candidate ahead of Corbynite hopefuls by local party members.

Many see Mr McMahon's greatest asset as his rarity amongst most modern politicians - he's "normal".

"I think I look at myself and I'm very different than most MPs," said Mr McMahon, who left school at 16 and worked in a supermarket before becoming a technical apprentice.

"More broadly I'm working class, I didn't go to university, I wasn't a parliamentary researcher, I've had a normal life, I've got a family, but I love this town and I'm standing up to try and make a difference to this town that I care about."

On indexes of multiple deprivation some of the most poverty stricken streets and neighbourhoods in the country are in central Oldham.

The townscape dotted with the once-thriving huge rectangular red brick cotton mills, some converted to distribution warehouses, where local agency workers, pick and ship goods now manufactured elsewhere.

Oldham Food Bank gave out free food to 3,000 individuals last year - an increase of 40% on the 2013, to many recipients with jobs.

Manager Andrew Barr, said: "We get a lot of working poor in, a lot of people who are on zero hour contracts. It may be that month there's not been any work for them. They just can't earn enough money in a week to survive."

Immigration fears, frustration over depressed wages and competition for jobs and housing, may encourage Labour voters who would not countenance voting for the Tory's James Daly or the Lib Dems' Jane Brophy to switch to Ukip.

Mr McMahon said: "So what is their answer? Stop immigration. If we stopped immigration tomorrow it wouldn't end, the fact we have got a low skilled economy, the fact that people are on zero hour contracts, people have low pay, the fact that we have chronically under-invested in social housing and public services."

Just a year ago in the neighbouring Heywood and Middleton by-election Ukip's John Bickley, came within 600 votes of taking that once Labour stronghold.

But Ukip is making immigration the campaign issue in a constituency with a lot of immigrants - around 10% of the town's population is of Pakistani origin and Mr McMahon believes Oldham has learnt from its past history of racial tension and self-segregation between communities.

He added: "I don't believe that people are bought in by Ukip, I think their headline message of division I don't think plays very well in a town like Oldham because we have learned to unify, to get on, to focus on our future rather than being dragged back into the past. I hope people will see through that."

Voters go to the polls on December 3.