THE BLOG

The Oldham By-election Is the First Crucial Test of Osborne's 'Northern Powerhouse'

18/11/2015 16:01 GMT | Updated 18/11/2016 10:12 GMT

On 3 December, the people of Oldham West and Royton will go to the polls in a by-election that is important to all parties.

For the Conservatives this by-election is crucial. It will be a key test of their aim of reinventing themselves as the party of working people, and of their strategy of reaching out into the parts of the north of England which have not been fertile political territory for them in recent decades. It will be also the first real test of their plans for a so called 'Northern Powerhouse.'

The importance of this aspect of the by-election contest cannot be ignored, not least because George Osborne - a North West MP - has staked so much of his reputation on the 'Northern Powerhouse'. Greater Manchester, of which Oldham is one of ten districts, is at the very front of this dash for devolution offered by the Chancellor.

It would be nothing short of an embarrassment to this strategy if the Conservative party's standing actually fell back from their already dismal General Election position in the Oldham West seat.

For George Osborne and David Cameron, the 'Northern Powerhouse' isn't just about injecting a new economic and political impetus in the veins of the northern towns and cities, it is equally about building a platform for a Tory revival in the north of England.

Labour support real devolution to empower our communities, but the Government's plan is a top down process of piecemeal deals that do not offer any meaningful devolution. Behind the rhetoric, the reality is that working people in Oldham and across the north are worse off because of the Tories' choices.

David Cameron and George Osborne are well aware that the fortunes of places like Oldham, and the fortunes of the Conservatives themselves are intertwined.

Oldham is a town where once upon a time cotton was king. This town once boasted more millionaires than any other community in Britain. Indeed, Oldham was at the very heart of a genuine powerhouse, not just of the north, but of the Empire.

It was here in Oldham that a young Winston Churchill began his long and distinguished parliamentary career as the town's MP, but now the Tories have all but disappeared from the political life of the town.

Despite having briefly snatched the Oldham West seat in a by-election in 1968, and also holding the Littleborough and Saddleworth seats (part of modern-day Oldham East) until 1995, the rapid decline of the Conservative Party in Oldham has been so great that now they are reduced to just two councillors on Oldham Council.

The Oldham West and Royton by-election will be a crucial first real test of the 'Northern Powerhouse' and a major test for the Conservative Party. If they cannot at least maintain their already vapid position in Oldham on 3 December then the future prospects for a grand Tory revival in the north will be left looking very bleak indeed, something David Cameron and George Osborne can ill afford.

Andrew Gwynne is the Labour MP for Denton and Reddish, and shadow minister for public health