"One Nation" Labour has no choice but to fight hard in Eastleigh

The by-election is an important test of the party's ability under Miliband to appeal to southern voters.

Much has been said about the challenges the Eastleigh by-election will pose for the two parties of government, and it’s true that either David Cameron or Nick Clegg will face awkward questions from their party after 28 February. But Ed Miliband has no cause for smugness just yet.

Having failed to even get 10 per cent of the vote in Eastleigh in 2010, there will be little pressure on the Labour candidate in the by-election, who will be announced today. Yet the seat is a test of the party's ability under Miliband to appeal to southern voters. John Denham, the MP for neighbouring constituency Southampton Itchen, is leading the Labour campaign, and highlights the election’s wider significance in Miliband's "One Nation Labour" project.

"The reason the Labour Party is fighting this seat seriously is not just because we want to get the best possible result here, but because, as a party that’s aiming to rebuild its base in the south, this is the sort of constituency, and the people who live here are the sort of people, that we want to represent.

"When we talk about being a One Nation Labour Party - south as well as north - we’re not just talking about the handful of places that might be target marginal constituencies at the next election but the whole of Southern England. If we can get that across really strongly, that in itself is a victory for us."

Predictably, Denham wasn't prepared to put a numerical figure on this "victory". Realistically, doubling the party’s share of the vote and breaking the 20 per cent mark would be a useful first step in Labour’s arduous task of regaining the trust of the south.

Such a result would rely largely on what Denham describes as "Labour-inclined [people] who voted Lib Dem in 2010 because they thought they were going to keep the Tories out and who are particularly bitter at the moment". Labour’s problem is that it's in their interests for such voters to bite their lip and support the Lib Dems again in 2015; the Conservatives are second in 38 of the Lib Dems’ 57 seats.

So while it’s easy to see the attraction for Labour in soft-pedaling in Eastleigh, it’s one that should be resisted. Light campaigning from the party might increase the chances of the Lib Dems holding onto the seat, but it would also be very risky: even without Nigel Farage as their candidate, Coral make UKIP evens to beat Labour. If that happened, it would be hard to suggest that the party's one nation extended south of the M25.  

Ed Miliband addresses workers at Islington Town Hall on November 5, 2012 in London. Photograph: Getty Images.

Tim Wigmore is a contributing writer to the New Statesman and the author of Second XI: Cricket In Its Outposts.

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Could Labour lose the Oldham by-election?

Sources warn defeat is not unthinkable but the party's ground campaign believe they will hold on. 

As shadow cabinet members argue in public over Labour's position on Syria and John McDonnell defends his Mao moment, it has been easy to forget that the party next week faces its first election test since Jeremy Corbyn became leader. On paper, Oldham West and Royton should be a straightforward win. Michael Meacher, whose death last month triggered the by-election, held the seat with a majority of 14,738 just seven months ago. The party opted for an early pre-Christmas poll, giving second-placed Ukip less time to gain momentum, and selected the respected Oldham council leader Jim McMahon as its candidate. 

But in recent weeks Labour sources have become ever more anxious. Shadow cabinet members returning from campaigning report that Corbyn has gone down "very badly" with voters, with his original comments on shoot-to-kill particularly toxic. Most MPs expect the party's majority to lie within the 1,000-2,000 range. But one insider told me that the party's majority would likely fall into the hundreds ("I'd be thrilled with 2,000") and warned that defeat was far from unthinkable. The fear is that low turnout and defections to Ukip could allow the Farageists to sneak a win. MPs are further troubled by the likelihood that the contest will take place on the same day as the Syria vote (Thursday), which will badly divide Labour. 

The party's ground campaign, however, "aren't in panic mode", I'm told, with data showing them on course to hold the seat with a sharply reduced majority. As Tim noted in his recent report from the seat, unlike Heywood and Middleton, where Ukip finished just 617 votes behind Labour in a 2014 by-election, Oldham has a significant Asian population (accounting for 26.5 per cent of the total), which is largely hostile to Ukip and likely to remain loyal to Labour. 

Expectations are now so low that a win alone will be celebrated. But expect Corbyn's opponents to point out that working class Ukip voters were among the groups the Labour leader was supposed to attract. They are likely to credit McMahon with the victory and argue that the party held the seat in spite of Corbyn, rather than because of him. Ukip have sought to turn the contest into a referendum on the Labour leader's patriotism but McMahon replied: "My grandfather served in the army, my father and my partner’s fathers were in the Territorial Army. I raised money to restore my local cenotaph. On 18 December I will be going with pride to London to collect my OBE from the Queen and bring it back to Oldham as a local boy done good. If they want to pick a fight on patriotism, bring it on."  "If we had any other candidate we'd have been in enormous trouble," one shadow minister concluded. 

Of Corbyn, who cancelled a visit to the seat today, one source said: "I don't think Jeremy himself spends any time thinking about it, he doesn't think that electoral outcomes at this stage touch him somehow."  

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.