Oldham East: The end of the beginning

Posted on: 14 January 2011 by Alexander Hay

Yesterday's By-election may have changed the game for UK politics.

This election is over, but bodes much for the next general election

The Oldham East by-election results last night offer a whole host of revelations about the state of our politics today. It's never a good idea to make detailed predictions, especially regarding the 2015 general election if another poll doesn't come sooner, but what transpired here is still very revealing.

Indeed, it says much about the post-Brown Labour Party. At first the election looked like a nightmare for the comrades. Former MP Phil Woolas only just pipped his Liberal Democrat foe to the post in the 2010 May general election, and then had to stand down as the nastier elements of his campaign, and his mendacity, became clear.

By such a yardstick most parties would expect quite a walloping by the electorate. In fact, Labour candidate (and now new MP) Debbie Abrahams increased her party's majority from 103 to 3558, her share of the vote going up to 42 per cent from 31.9 per cent. For a party routed from power only eight months before, that's an impressive achievement. Getting rid of Woolas no doubt decontaminated the brand but more importantly, the party campaigned by attacking unpopular cuts on a national level, but also a local level too. 

It's a victory then, but also a careful and measured one. It avoided bad PR and slowly rebuilt the Labour Party's image while avoiding the limelight until needed at the right moment. In other words, it acted like a party run by Ed Miliband, who will no doubt be learning some lessons through his success.

Debbie Abrahams also very wisely targeted the Lib Dems. Coming second may seem a lucky escape given the opinion poll drubbing Nick Clegg's party has grown used to of late, but in some ways Oldham East was unusual. To begin with, it has always been competing directly with Labour for the seat since at least 1997, with the Conservatives always in third. Other constituency electors may not be so charitable, or have so many Conservative supporters voting tactically.

Moreover, the local party is strong and well-organised, with a long history and tradition to fall back on. Parties with established local machines to fall back on invariably do well, which is why newer outfits such as UKIP and the Green Party have such trouble breaking in - they simply haven't been around long enough.

It is therefore a somewhat misleading result as it is far too charitable given the mood towards the Lib Dems on a national level. Candidate Elwyn Watkins, who also stood for the seat back in May, may have seen his share of the vote rise, but this was cancelled out by a much larger Labour rise. 

It is, in other words, a blow to Clegg who must surely be wondering the fate that will befall his party's marginal seats. Coming second is hardly anything to cheer about - unlike the General Election, the Liberal Democrats can't win simply by sucking up to the real victor.

The Conservatives were the most obvious losers last night though. (if you don't factor in David Bishop, representing the Bus-Pass Elvis party) In fact, the party shows real signs of trouble. Its campaign was badly run, not least because the party had no chance of winning the election even if it tried. The party has consistently polled third in Oldham East between 1997-2011, and its unpopularity in an area still mauled by the loss of its industrial employment base, not to mention its controversial cuts, would never have given it a chance.

Elsewhere, its literature only mentioned abstract achievements that weren't particularly relevant on the doorstep (unless scrapping the Third Runway at Heathrow was keeping the voters up in Oldham awake at night) or simply attacked, attacked, attacked the Labour party while not making a compelling argument for its own manifesto. 'Vote for Us because we're not as bad as the main contenders!' is hardly a winning strategy.

It doesn't help that in many areas of the country, 'Brand Cameron' is already tainted, if only because he seems to think that selling himself on being willing to do unpopular things is somehow a winning formula. He is certainly already unpopular with large swathes of the electorate (including in Oldham) and even some of his own backbenchers. He might want to consider actually trying to make people like him for once. It might help, somehow.

In all, then, Oldham East points to a situation that suggests a Labour government in 2015, if the polls are to be believed, and a Coalition that will not survive to see its fifth year. The tide may already be turning.

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Alexander Hay

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