A collaborative blog for Current Affairs and Policy Debate

Oldham East and Saddleworth

In Events, Home Affairs, Parliamentary Spotlight, Party politics on January 9, 2011 at 6:45 pm

By polarii for The Daily Soapbox

Right everyone! We’re back into the cut and thrust of real politics, and our first UK election since that momentous general election in May last year. Unfortunately, Oldham East and Saddleworth can’t be fitted into an upbeat opening in any conventional way, so I shan’t try. But the prospect of the first election of the ‘New Politics’ is exciting.

All the major parties are contesting the election, as well as a plethora of minor parties (see end of article for full list of candidates). And all the three major parties are in the running. The nearest in fourth is the BNP, which has consistently polled around 2000 votes in the last few elections (roughly 5%). The seat was narrowly held by Labour minister Phil Woolas in May, edging ahead of the Liberal Democrats; but the Conservative vote increased by over 8%. Woolas was subsequently convicted of making false accusations regarding the Liberal candidate, and was stripped of his seat. Hence a by-election.

National polls place the Liberal Democrats at around 9%, with one showing as low as 7%, and Labour and the Tories roughly equal, with Labour nudging ahead. However, polling targeted directly at the seat indicates that Labour enjoys 45% against the Liberal 28% – a massive swing from the Liberals. Considering that the Liberal figure is also bolstered by tactical support from Conservative voters, this is doubly worrying for the Lib Dems. One activist has extrapolated the national figures onto local elections, which would lead to the Liberals losing six of the seven local wards they currently hold (of a total nine), bringing Labour six, and leaving one for an independent and Tory each.

But I think there is limited ground for pessimism. The seat is in Greater Manchester, a Labour stronghold; it has gone red at every election since it was founded. The Liberals were riding off the back of an extremely successful election campaign in May; now they are tied up with the serious business of governance. They have just had to renege on some of their most high-profile election promises. The Labour party has an uninspiring new leader. In many places, they enjoy strong local support without it converting into Parliamentary seats – St Albans being the often-cited example. Frankly, that they are still capable of polling anything near their General Election value (in this constituency) is a cause to be optimistic.

And I think we can deliver a yet better outlook for the Liberals. This will be a tough year; the VAT rise and certain cuts are biting hard, the government should expect to take some hits in by-elections. Governments often lose by-elections, as people view them not so much as a choice between alternatives, but as a judgement on the government. Consequently, Labour could well poll higher than the result will be, as happened in the General Election, when the roles were inversed. People in the street may well express dissatisfaction with ‘the current lot’ and say Labour just to get the pollster off their back. And the likelihood is that they won’t vote anyway – turnout is normally less than 50% in such elections.

And this is where it could get interesting. There are good reasons to vote neither for Labour nor the Liberals. The former Labour candidate was clearly guilty of immoral practice, and the new leader is distinctly lacklustre. And the Liberal party has gone back on so much, and, in the public perception at least, sold out on so many of its values. In fact, if the Tories play their hand right, they could be in for a coup.

So here’s the scenario: everyone who votes on the basis of government policy votes either Labour or Tory, depending on whether they agree with it or not. Many of the tribal Liberals stay at home because of tuition fees, the tribal Labour don’t come out in droves for their dismal leader, and because of a corrupt former candidate, but the tribal Conservatives come out as for any election. Those who vote on the basis of who is the most upright vote Conservative, to avoid the illegal Labour and the unfaithful Liberals. Suddenly, we see a Tory majority being distinctly possible.

However, while we can get excited at the possibility of a major upset, it is also possible that disaffected Liberals simply vote Labour, and the Labour core vote gives Ed Miliband a chance, and they carry the seat. Tribal Conservatives, smarting at the low tone of the campaign and being angry with the coalition, may stay at home; other Tories will likely vote Liberal, drastically weakening the analysis previously offered. In such a close race, fourth party slip-ups from UKIP or the BNP could also carry quite a lot of influence; or, in general malaise with the state of the nation and its politics, a fourth party, most probably the BNP, could create an even greater upset.

This is part of the fun of the New Politics – we’re not sure if the tribal divide between Liberal and Tory, previously so strong in some areas, will have dissolved, with each party backing the most likely ‘coalition candidate’, or whether they still exist at root. And whether the electorate wish to delineate between the two coalition parties, or just consider them to be ‘the government’. This election is wide open, and the difficulty in calling it is further illustrated by trying to call second place as well. These things are clear: if Labour doesn’t win, Ed Miliband is severely weakened. If the Liberals win, the coalition is gently bolstered, and Lib Dem fears of being wiped off the map are almost completely confounded. Though it’s not so disastrous to either if they lose, unless they only poll around 10% of the vote. And Cameron is fine unless he is beaten by the BNP. And the whole nation needs a good pinch in the morning if someone else wins.

So, my prediction: Labour to win, the Liberals in second, and the Tories not far behind, possibly even clinching second. The BNP to poll around 1000-1200 votes. And turnout to be about 40%.

Stop (Word)Press: BBC Radio 4, on the eve of the election, was reporting that some Conservative party members were going to tactically vote for Labour to prevent a Liberal victory. An interesting gobbit: not only do the Tories still hate the Liberals, but they think they have a genuine chance of winning. With traditional votes split any number of ways, this election really is too close to call.

The full list of candidates standing in the Oldham East and Saddleworth by-election: Debbie Abrahams (Labour Party), Derek Adams (British National Party), Kashif Ali (Conservative Party), David Bishop (Bus-Pass Elvis Party), Nick ‘The Flying Brick’ Delves (Monster Raving Loony Party), Loz Kaye (Pirate Party), Stephen Morris (English Democrats), Paul Nuttall (United Kingdom Independence Party), Elwyn Watkins (Liberal Democrat).

The answer to the question posed at the beginning of State and Society was, of course, Tony Benn. Thanks to all those who voted, and congratulations to those who got it right!

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