Morning Call: pick of the papers

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

1. A welfare crisis engulfs the nation, but Labour sits idly by (Daily Telegraph)

Caution has served Ed Miliband well so far, but the time has come for more than rhetoric, says Mary Riddell.

2. Why China’s economy might topple (Financial Times)

As Japan has shown, shifting to a lower-growth model is risky, writes Martin Wolf.

3. Tunisia and Egypt need the Arab revolutions to spread (Guardian)

Conflict over religion and identity risks diverting attention from the battle for social justice and national independence, writes Seumas Milne.

4. The Ed Miliband experiment has been tried before. Remember Gordon Brown? (Independent)

The worst outcome of the next election would be for Labour to win it so ill-prepared, says John Rentoul.

5. Welfare state can be cheaper and popular (Financial Times)

To satisfy deficit hawks and social justice doves a radical reshaping is needed, writes Graeme Cooke.

6. European Union: time to get aboard (Guardian)

Britain ought to be playing a more active role than this self-isolation permits, says a Guardian editorial.

7. North Korean missile crisis? Remember Cuba (Times)

It’s easy to dismiss Pyongyang’s threats as empty rhetoric, says Daniel Finkelstein. Postwar history should teach us to take the noise seriously.

8. Tell youngsters the truth: the UK needs you to work not go to university (Daily Telegraph)

The decision to massively increase the number of school-leavers going to university ranks as one of the greatest social and industrial policy blunders of recent decades, argues Allister Heath. 

9. A gurning DG and the question of bias (Daily Mail)

Seen through the BBC prism, every modest attempt to trim public spending is a wanton act of cruelty, says a Daily Mail editorial.

10. The religious side of Easter seemed to pass almost unnoticed (Independent)

Not so long ago almost everything shut down on Good Friday and Easter Sunday, notes Mary Dejevsky.

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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.