Labour’s candidate in the Oldham West by-election has hit back at UKIP attacks on his party’s patriotism and warned that the town does not want to go back to the ‘dark days’ of racial division.
In an interview with HuffPost UK, Jim McMahon lambasted UKIP for lacking local knowledge about the regeneration and progress Oldham had made since the race riots of 2001.
He also pointed out that the town was proud of its military history and historic links with Winston Churchill and hailed a project that commemorated Pakistani and Indian soldiers who had lost their lives in the Second World War.
Mr McMahon, the town’s council leader, hit back too at David Cameron’s recent complaint to his local council in Oxfordshire, declaring “if he wants to see real cuts he should come on the train and see Oldham”.
The Oldham West and Royton by-election, which takes place on December 3, is the first electoral test for Labour under Jeremy Corbyn.
The late Michael Meacher, whose death triggered the poll, had a huge 14,700 majority at the general election in May.
But UKIP came second, narrowly ahead of the Tories, and Nigel Farage and his candidate John Bickley have vowed to turn the contest into a referendum on the ‘patriotism’ of Corbyn’s Labour party.
This week UKIP put out a leaflet, purporting to be from Labour, which said the party wanted mass immigration, the abolition of the armed forces and the Monarchy and a handover of the Falklands to Argentina.
UKIP is seeking on the doorstep to exploit Mr Corbyn’s initial failure to sing the national anthem and his recent remarks questioning the ‘shoot-to-kill’ tactics of police in the Paris attacks and the legality of killing ‘Jihadi John’.
Speaking to the HuffPost UK, Mr McMahon, who collects an OBE from the Queen next month to mark his services to the community, said that he was proud of Oldham’s military links.
He said that a local ‘Oldham Remembers’ project included a reminder of the way warfare had united, not divided, different racial groups against the common enemy of Nazism.
“There’s a massive thing on there around Pakistani and Indian people who fought for the British Army and lost their lives, with relatives who live in Oldham,” he said.
“That really does cut across quite a number of issues for a town like Oldham, that actually says together we have fought against people who want to destroy our way of life.”
Jim McMahon, with Jeremy Corbyn and Tom Watson
Mr McMahon, whose grandfather served in the army and whose father was in the Territorial Army, highlighted that as council leader he had overseen the £200,000 refurbishment of the local Cenotaph.
“Oldham has a strong military history and we were very keen to make sure that on the 100th anniversary of the First World War, we remember them. We went on a Cenotaph refurbishment programme of £200,000.
“I myself was a Remembrance Sunday organiser because the danger is that as veterans die off who were part of the Second World War, that story gets lost.”
Oldham saw some of the worst race riots of recent years in Britain when Asian and white groups clashed in 2001, with riot police coming under fire from petrol bombs, bricks and stones thrown at them.
Yet Mr McMahon said that huge progress had been made since then in turning the town around.
“Oldham has come a long way from where we were when the town was divided,” he said.
“There’s a great sense that we don’t want to go back to those dark days of our past. Regenerating the borough, getting great places for people to shop, to enjoy life with a cinema and restaurants, decent houses for people to live in, decent quality jobs, are all part now of looking to the future and not looking backwards.
“On 3rd of December people will have a choice. And the choice that I can see is between a candidate that believes in the future and has a track record in fighting for investment in Oldham or a UKIP candidate who frankly couldn’t care less about Oldham. He just rocks up here because it’s the latest by-election and uses it as a platform to make a national political point.”
Mr McMahon said that if elected as MP for the area he would continue his approach of urging unity rather than division.
“When we talk about cohesion we tend to start from the point of ‘well, we are all different aren’t we?’ When I look to unify the town, I look to find the things that make us Oldham and the things where we have a common interest.
“We all have a common interest in a decent town centre, that our schools are providing a decent education, if we get the common things right then we can unify people.”
The 35-year-old Labour candidate said UKIP’s biggest ‘own goal’ had been to object to his plan to turn the dilapidated old Town Hall into a new cinema and restaurant complex.
He said that David Cameron’s recent leaked letter to Oxfordshire County Council – in which he complained about cuts to children’s centres and libraries – proved how distant the Prime Minister was from the impact of his own Government’s austerity policies.
“David Cameron is so out of touch with reality it's untrue. For him to write to his own local authority, evidently completely oblivious to the impact of cuts to a local authority that had been by and large protected from cuts, says everything.
“If David Cameron wants to come to Oldham, I can show him what real cuts are like: youth centres that are closed, daycare centres that are closed, police stations that are closed, a magistrates court and a county court that are due to close. If he wants to see real cuts he should come on the train and come to Oldham. And it might help with their candidate as well.”
George Osborne launching his Northern Powerhouse
Mr McMahon added that the Tories appeared to be willing to let UKIP make all the running, and claimed that the by-election would also a cast a verdict on the Chancellor’s ‘Northern Powerhouse’.
“The campaign has had a notable absence of Conservatives on the ground. You've got to wonder whether or not there's an internal spat with the Tories trying not to concede too much ground to George Osborne and his Northern Powerhouse rhetoric. If the Tories do badly here it would seriously undermine George Osborne's credibility and his campaign to be next Tory leader.”
But Mr McMahon - who describes himself as 'unashamedly pro-business' - also hit out at suggestions from some on the Left that Labour councils should not be cutting services and, in an echo of the 1980s, should refuse to set budgets.
“I think Labour local leaders are by instinct disciplined, they step up to take responsibility, not step back and defer responsibility so if the judgement is do you step back and not set a budget and let George Osborne and civil servants can do it for you, the answer is going to be 'No'," he said.
"You’ve got a responsibility to make sure that the council budget, however tight, needs to meet the needs of the local community. Far better that we do it, even in difficult circumstances, than a civil servant from Whitehall in London does it for us, which would be the alternative.
"I'm very clear that austerity has gone too far, that services have been cut to the bone. But equally I and other Labour local authority leaders are clear we should step up and take responsibility, we don't shirk it.”