In Defence of Liberty

Driven by data; ridden with liberty.

On Oldham and Political Framing


Was this by-election really a referendum on Jeremy Corbyn? (Edited: Daily Mirror)

Jim McMahon was elected as the new MP for Oldham West & Royton. The Labour candidate achieved 62% of the vote [1], in the by-election prompted by the death of Michael Meacher. The commentary and framing that enveloped this by-election was particularly remarkable.

“Very narrow, pretty extreme”

To the leader of UKIP, Nigel Farage, this by-election represented a referendum on the Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn [2]:

I feel that we really, really can bite very, very hard into that old Labour vote who frankly bear little in common with the north London, trendy hard-left Labour man. This very much amongst Labour voters is going to be a test of: does Corbyn connect outside of north London and a very narrow, pretty extreme left-wing group of people?

The problem with political framing is that the voters do not vote according to a pre-determined frame. The question is who the voters wish to be their next member of parliament. As the article in The Guardian stated, some of the potential electors in Royton’s town centre claimed to not even have heard of Jeremy Corbyn.

“Their whole austerity agenda”

Given that, by their very nature, by-elections are unusual events in specific constituencies, it is similarly flawed to draw general conclusions about a national party’s overall strength. The by-election turnout was 38.7%, compared to 59.6% at the general election in May [3]. Hailing Mr McMahon’s victory, Jeremy Corbyn rejoiced [4]:

This campaign shows just how strong our party is not just here in Oldham but all over the country. It shows the way we have driven the Tories back on tax credits, police cuts, on their whole austerity agenda and narrative.

Labour’s by-election campaign focused on local issues, with the candidate leading the local council. It is a strange extrapolation to suggest voters in Oldham West & Royton overwhelming supported Mr McMahon because Labour have driven the Conservatives back “on their whole austerity agenda and narrative”.

Without polling

The perplexing perception that the by-election was going to be close, as UKIP threaten Labour, was not a failure of polling. There were no constituency polls in Oldham West & Royton. It was a failure of speculation, of insinuation, of suggestion.

Articles concerning the by-election included only unnamed sources on how each campaign was meant to be going, reports on canvassing and quotations from potential voters [5]. As Isabel Hardman highlighted on the BBC, there was little distinction made between canvassing voters pledging definite support, and rounds seeking votes from waivering and wandering electors.

Reading reports of Labour MPs and campaigners having doors slammed in their faces gave a misleading impression of Labour’s actual vote. Without a centrepiece of polling, we were left arranging emotive decoration and interpreting whispers.

Labour maintained a seat in a constituency in which, since its creation in 1997, the party has never received less than 45% of the total vote. That is not a startling headline. Congratulations to Mr McMahon, who will be a great MP for his constituents.


[1] Oldham Council, 2015. Oldham West and Royton: Parliamentary by-election results. Available from: [Accessed: 7th December 2015]

[2] Pidd, H., 2015. Oldham West and Royton byelection is referendum on Corbyn, says Farage. The Guardian. Available from: [Accessed: 7th December 2015]

[3] BBC, 2015. Oldham West & Royton. Available from: [Accessed: 7th December 2015]

[4] Telegraph, 2015. Jeremy Corbyn: Oldham shows just how strong Labour is. Available from: [Accessed: 7th December 2015]

[5] Routledge, P., 2015. Why the Oldham West by-election is a battle Labour HAS to win. Daily Mirror. Available from: [Accessed: 7th December 2015]



This entry was posted on December 7, 2015 by in National Politics and tagged , , .
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