Morning Call: pick of the papers

The ten must-read comment pieces from this morning's papers.

1. For failed asylum seekers, life on section 4 is a nightmare worse than Kafka (Guardian)

Britain's ability to offer sanctuary is being stifled by a home secretary eager to back up her tough talk on human rights, says Zoe Williams. 

2. We must shine a light into our secret state's dark corners (Daily Telegraph)

Britain's complicity in torture must be disguised by the new Justice and Security Bill, says Peter Oborne.

3. The guilty secret behind a private education (Times) (£)

Why do public school heads feel hated? Because they offer an immoral advantage that is getting ever more exclusive, says David Aaronovitch.

4. Mali could make France governable (Financial Times)

Intervention may benefit the beleaguered François Hollande, writes Dominique Moisi.

5. Why fixed terms parliaments are a nightmare for leaders and a gift for rebel MPs (Independent)

Conservative MPs can plot and stir because the next election is still years away, writes Steve Richards.

6. Dangerous mission creep in Mali (Independent)

With barely a blink and certainly no debate in Parliament – nearly 400 British military personnel are to be sent to the region, notes an Independent leader.

7. The SAS: a very special force (Daily Telegraph)

Cameron has promised to increase rather than cut defence spending after 2015, writes Con Coughlin. That’s just as well, because he needs his special forces more than ever.

8. Theresa May has simply got on with the job of police reform (Guardian)

The home secretary has seen through serious reforms of the police that others dodged, says Martin Kettle. If her luck holds the rewards could be great.

9. Yes, Poles are wonderful, but for Tony Blair to be feted for letting them flood into Britain is a sick joke (Daily Mail)

Blair should receive a badge of dishonour for undermining British workers, weakening public services and ignoring the interests of his own people, says Stephen Glover.

10. Corporate tax posturing should stop (Financial Times)

Companies are complying with laws that governments could change if they wished, writes John Gapper.

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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.