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6 November 2015

Why Labour’s Oldham by-election candidate Jim McMahon is one to watch

At 35, he is already one of the most significant figures in local government. 

By George Eaton

Jim McMahon, who was selected last night as Labour’s Oldham West and Royton by-election candidate, is a man MPs have long spoken of with excitement. At the age of 35, he has already led Oldham council for four years and last year became the leader of the party’s local government association group. He went on to receive an OBE for services to his community and was tipped by some to become the first directly-elected mayor of Greater Manchester in 2017.

But McMahon, the son of a truck driver, who left school at 16, has instead opted to head for Westminster. He won 232 of the 389 votes in the final round last night, defeating three candidates to his left, including second-placed Mohammed Azam (who won 141) and former MP and Jeremy Corbyn supporter Chris Williamson (who won 17). McMahon, who backed Liz Kendall’s leadership bid, is viewed as an ally by Labour’s right. As leader of Oldham council he has been a champion of reform and innovation to cope creatively with austerity. In a recent piece for Progress, he wrote: “Labour local government has admirably led the way over the past five years in demonstrating what it can achieve even in a cold financial and political climate nationally.”

Writing for the New Statesman in July, he warned: “A coherent, compelling narrative on the economy is essential. Labour’s local representatives believe that we lost the debate on the economy in 2010 and never recovered. Failure to command people’s trust and confidence there poses a credibility problem we cannot dodge. If we can’t defend our economic record, then no-one else will. And if we are not sure about the economic path we want to take, then nobody will follow.” But he has also emphasised points of agreement with Corbyn. “On issues like austerity, I’m very close to Jeremy indeed. I think our public services are buckling under the cuts,” he said recently. 

McMahon enters the by-election in a commanding position. The late Michael Meacher won the seat for Labour with a majority of 14,738 in May and the new candidate’s local reputation will aid his party. But McMahon faces a challenge from Ukip, whose candidate John Bickley finished just 617 votes behind Labour in last year’s Heywood and Middleton by-election, and which has vowed to make the contest a referendum on Corbyn’s “anti-patriotic politics”.

McMahon, unsurprisingly, has already delivered a stern rebuke to this attack: “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.” 

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Barring a remarkable upset, McMahon will be elected on 3 December. As Labour seeks to recover from its defeat, MPs believe he will have a key role to play and, some say, one day the biggest role of all.