Labour successfully held the Oldham West and Royton by-election on Thursday, beating expectations by increasing the party’s share of the vote from May’s general election, albeit on a much reduced turnout.
Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn said the victory displayed “broad” support for Labour “across the country”. That conclusion is hard to justify through evidence, especially when national polling fails to confirm Corbyn’s assertion.
The result, though, does offer some insight into the current landscape around the politics of the Northern Powerhouse.
James Daly, the Conservative candidate, came a distant third with only 9.3 per cent. This against a backdrop of Chancellor George Osborne’s relentless pursuit of pushing forward the Northern Powerhouse agenda, of which Oldham Metropolitan Borough Council is part of via the Greater Manchester devolution deal.
Osborne freely admits he has no idea whether the Northern Powerhouse will be a success. A rare honest assessment of a Government backed policy agenda. The by-election result should not dishearten Conservative supporters, even in the context of the current Labour leadership and events around Syria this week.
There are currently 45 Oldham Labour councillors. The Conservative Party have only two. In short, the party infrastructure does not exist.
Moreover, the seats the Conservative Party should be targeting in the North as part of the Northern Powerhouse agenda will not look like Oldham, where constituency demographics make conditions challenging. Rather, they will be more affluent city suburb seats and wealthier commuter towns.
This will take time. Rome wasn’t built in a day, nor will the Northern Powerhouse. The difficult question is how long before the party should expect to start seeing some electoral impact. Given the time and effort Osborne is spending on the project, that question will increasingly be posed to him from voices within his own party.
The result also demonstrated the flip side of the Northern Powerhouse for the Conservative Party. Jim McMahon, the newly elected MP, previously served as Oldham Council Leader.
An enthusiast for the Northern Powerhouse agenda, he has spoken about the need to work with Osborne in order to secure the best possible deal, while at the same time using the Northern Powerhouse as a mechanism to press for even more powers than Osborne has initially offered.
A local, popular candidate and active in securing greater powers for Oldham, McMahon should represent a warning to Osborne. The ownership of the devolution agenda is not simply a case of Osborne taking the credit. Local savvy Labour politicians, such as McMahon, demonstrate how to use the devolution agenda to their own advantage.
Given McMahon’s enthusiasm for greater devolved powers for Greater Manchester, he will now be in a position to continue his advocacy across the chamber from Osborne in the House of Commons. Osborne will be hoping that McMahon does not try and steal even more of his Northern Powerhouse agenda, now he’s in Westminster.