There are 74 MPs in Westminster which will be taking a keen interest in the Oldham West & Royton by-election. That's because, like Labour in Oldham West, they have UKIP in second place in their seat. Across the 75 seats where UKIP came second to Labour in May the average lead Labour has is 10,000. Oldham West & Royton is one such seat. Added to which there will be dozens, perhaps hundreds, of councillors across Labour's heartlands looking over their shoulder at what a good result for UKIP in this by-election means for them in May next year.
So, first question. What's the profile of the seat? Well, it's absolutely identical to Heywood & Middleton......with one difference. In Oldham West & Royton around a quarter of the electorate is made up of Pakistani or Bangladeshi voters. Apart from that it's absolutely identical to Heywood & Middleton!
However, there is a much more interesting phenomenon in Oldham West & Royton. Those of us from a sociological perspective put the Chicago School on something of a pedestal. One of their more enduring theories concerns the notion of concentric zones. The idea that a central business district in an urban setting is surrounded by a transition zone into blue-collar households beyond and finally a middle income residential belt. The image below describes this in a crude fashion, but the underlying theory has a rich heritage and has resulted in a massive amount of research, mostly but not exclusively in the United States.
"What the hell has this got to do with Oldham West & Royton?", you ask. Take a look at the maps below, showing the distribution of demographic groups in Oldham West & Royston. The first map, on the left, shows the most dominant demographic group in each census area. The second map, on the right, groups together the demographic groups under three headings, and where they live in the seat. As you can see there are distinct concentric zones in Oldham West and Royton. The map on the right is NOT saying that ALL the people in those areas are from those groups, but they pre-dominate.
Each of the 'zones' has distinct demographic and political characteristics. The central zone, characterised by high concentrations of Pakistani and Bangladeshi households, is deprived along multiple dimensions. They live in terraced housing for the most part, earn low incomes in relatively low-skilled occupations. Many have young children but extended family networks. In recent local elections they have voted for Labour....and massively so. The wards of Coldhurst and Werneth see Labour routinely stack up huge majorities in local elections. However these communities also voted Lib Dem in the aftermath of the Iraq War before drifting back to Labour.
The transition zone, which I have clumsily described as 'white working class' is made up of two distinct groups of voters. First there are those struggling households dependent on state benefits to supplement any income from employment. They probably left school at 16 and have found it difficult to make ends meet since. Second there are blue collar working households. They are slightly better off than the first group, and in somewhat stable employment. They find it hard to make ends meet too, but do so (just). They claim tax credits for any children and live in former council housing. Both groups have witnessed and experienced the pernicious effects of the economic downturn (as have the south Asian communities). These groups are also turning to UKIP....in numbers! Across Labour's heartlands these groups use UKIP as a platform on which to express their discontent and disaffection with a) the pace of social change, and b) the political classes. These are the Labour-UKIP voters.
Finally, the middle income households are just that. They are long-established where they live in mortgaged or owned semi-detached properties in the main. They get by reasonably comfortably on their incomes, have either growing families or older children and enjoy one or two holidays a year. Their median income is much higher than those in either than those in the central and transition zones. Typically they are still likely to vote Labour but a good proportion of them vote Conservative. The Conservatives take around a quarter of the vote in local elections here.
The key to the seat will be Labour's ability to mobilise voters in the two 'inner' zones. First, they should still perform strongly amongst the south Asian communities but pay attention to the candidate selected. I was somewhat surprised that Abdul Jabbar did not make the shortlist, and part of me does wonder whether this has caused some disquiet locally. Second, pay very close attention to Jeremy Corbyn and Andy Burnham. This week Mr Corbyn indicated that Labour would review their stance on supporting airstrikes in Iraq. When I heard that, I thought immediately of the Pakistani and Bangladeshi voters in Coldhurst and Werneth. With Mr Burnham, it will be interesting to see whether he makes an intervention on immigration over the coming weeks, as a hat-tip to UKIP-leaning Labour voters in Oldham West & Royton. Nick Clegg did the same thing during the election by appealing to voters to let the Lib Dems "finish the job they've started" in the coalition. Most people saw this as a pitch to the country, when in fact it was a pitch to Conservative voters in the west of Sheffield Hallam which won the seat for him!
Below are some political maps for you to scan, from recent local elections. I'll probably write more later but I'm a busy man.