All the early indications are that Labour are set for a much easier victory in the Oldham West and Royton by-election than anyone thought possible. This might be a useful moment to flag up an obvious but under-appreciated fact from the recent GB-wide YouGov voting intention poll - namely that Labour under Corbyn have exactly the same share of the vote (30%) that they actually achieved under Ed Miliband at the general election. There's no particular reason to think that YouGov are still overestimating the party's support, because quite radical methodological changes have been made to address the previous errors. So in spite of Corbyn's truly horrific personal ratings, Labour have stood completely still. How can that be?
The answer is that they haven't stood still. They've lost significant support to the Conservatives and other parties, but have completely offset it with support gained from elsewhere. The best clue as to how they've managed to achieve that comes in two of the poll's supplementary questions. Among people who actually voted Labour in May, Corbyn has a negative rating of -6, but among people who are currently planning to vote Labour, he has a positive rating of +31. Labour voters from May were only opposed to bombing Syria by a margin of 42% to 35%, but current Labour voters were opposed by a whopping 57% to 23%. In essence, Corbyn has replaced the previous Labour coalition of support with a different coalition more in his image, and the new one is just as big. That's not quite the narrative we've been fed, although admittedly if Labour support is draining to the Tories (to some extent) and is being replaced mainly by support from the Greens, Lib Dems, UKIP and previous non-voters, that does still result in an increased Tory lead, which is a huge problem under first-past-the-post. Even so, Oldham may be the first concrete electoral indication that the state of play is much more nuanced and interesting than we've been led to believe.
I have a helpful suggestion for anyone in the mainstream media who may be struggling with a headline for tomorrow -
"Hilary Benn's wonder speech saves Labour's bacon in Oldham"
Go on, I dare you to be that brazen!
UPDATE : It appears John "the Gardener" McTernan has already attempted that line. He's literally beyond satire now.
UPDATE II : Here is the full result...
Oldham West and Royton parliamentary by-election result (3rd December) :
Labour 62.1% (+7.3)
UKIP 23.4% (+2.8)
Conservatives 9.4% (-9.6)
Liberal Democrats 3.7% (n/c)
Greens 0.9% (-1.0)
Official Monster Raving Loonies 0.5% (n/a)
Obviously a 1% drop in the Green vote can't fully explain a 7.3% increase in the Labour vote, but nevertheless it's consistent with the notion that Corbyn is putting together a slightly different coalition of support. What's even more interesting is where the lost Tory votes have gone. I can't think of any reason to suppose the Tory abstention rate would be significantly higher than that of other parties, and it seems unlikely that many Tory voters would be interested in lending a tactical vote to a Corbyn-led party to keep UKIP out. So the most plausible explanation is that the unfaithful Tory voters went to UKIP, but they were mostly offset by working-class UKIP voters from the general election returning to the Labour fold.
The Oldham campaign hasn't been as dramatic as Darlington in 1983, but at this very early stage the outcome does appear to have a Darlington-esque feel about it, because it's radically changing perceptions about Corbyn's "life expectancy" as leader. It's now significantly more likely that he'll still be around at the time of the Scottish Parliament election in May, and I stand by what I said a few days ago - that's a good thing for the SNP, because it means that the chaos within Labour will carry on unabated. Tony Blair gave the game away during the leadership election - ultimately, the problem he and his supporters have with Corbyn is not electoral, but ideological. Even if Labour continues to hold its own in elections, the Blairites and others on the right still won't be able to live with Corbyn as leader, so we can look forward to the sniping and poison continuing.
I suppose the only downside of tonight's result is that we've been robbed of the chance of finding out what would have happened if the Blairites had been emboldened to make an early move to depose Corbyn, but failed. Would they have talked themselves into a position where they couldn't remain in a party with a radical left leader? Most of the MPs who defected to the SDP in 1981 couldn't have envisaged such an eventuality just a few months earlier. A split of that sort really would have been a dream outcome for the SNP, but I'm sure we can make do with the Labour shambles we've actually got.
There had been some suggestions that a UKIP breakthrough in Oldham might have indirectly been a good thing for the independence movement, because it would have increased the chances of Brexit. I'm not so sure about that. We've seen in recent years that the fortunes of "Leave" in the opinion polls have had an inverse correlation with the fortunes of UKIP, probably because moderate Eurosceptics are appalled by Farage and co. It may well be a good thing for the Out campaign if the Oldham result increases the sense that UKIP are becoming an irrelevance, thus allowing Eurosceptic Tory and Labour MPs to take the lead in future. It's also arguably a good thing for them that Jeremy Corbyn's position has been stabilsed, because although he'll probably be campaigning to remain in the EU, he won't be doing it with quite the full-blooded enthusiasm that a more centrist successor might have done.