It’s very unusual for my home town to be the centre of anything, so I have loved keeping tabs on the Oldham East and Saddleworth by-election campaign. Voting in that takes place on January 13th, one week from today.
The first by-election in any Parliament is always intriguing. Add the fact that we have a coalition government into the mix, as well as the exceptional circumstances in Oldham, and we have a perfect storm for political junkies like myself.
Not only is this by-election crucial for all three main parties, but it will also play a major role in determining the media narrative for 2011. Will the focus be on the crumbling Lib Dem vote? Or the stability – or otherwise – of the coalition? Maybe on Ed Miliband’s ineffective leadership? Perhaps the focus will be on disenchantment with the three main parties, as smaller parties see an increase in their vote.
As you’d expect, it’s a crowded field with ten candidates. We’ll be hearing from most of them next week in Paperback Rioter’s online hustings (check this blog out on Sunday for more information on that).
I even got the chance to speak to one last week, when Debbie Abrahams, the Labour candidate, canvassed our house. I gave her my best Paxman-style grilling; the impact of which was probably diminished by the fact that I was wearing my pyjamas and dressing gown at the time.
Debbie Abrahams was Head of Rochdale PCT but resigned over increasing privatisation. She also said to me that she was in favour of AV (“a step in the right direction”). Also, she is married to John Abrahams, a former Lancashire captain and current England under-19 coach. On the face of it, she is probably my dream Labour Candidate.
We talked for a bit about the cuts, and Debbie Abrahams reiterated Labour’s plans to halve the deficit in four years, as opposed to the three years set out by the Government in the Comprehensive Spending Review. She also said that Labour’s cuts would be “fairer” than the coalitions, but I am not sure how that is achieveable. It is the most vulnerable people in society that have the greatest reliance on public services, and therefore any cuts to public spending are going to affect them most.
The main reason I cannot vote Labour in this by-election is because there has still been no apology for what Phil Woolas did, nor any internal action taken against other Labour members of the Woolas campaign. An apology for his leaflets from Labour was a red-line issue for me – I would not vote Labour without that.
Debbie Abrahams said to me that Ed Miliband had apologised, and that “I was standing next to him when he did so”. I cannot find any evidence for this online; the closest is this article from the indefatigable Saddleworth News (their by-election coverage has been exemplary). When asked directly if he apologises for Woolas’s leaflets, Ed Miliband only says that he has “regret” over them. Which is not good enough for me.
I voted Lib Dem in May, and I’m sure you will be astonished to hear that I won’t be doing so this time. This is not only because Elwyn Watkins has said he would have voted for the tuition fees increase. As I’ve argued before, this is a ridiculous position that goes against not only his pre-election pledge, but also his party’s coalition agreement. Actually, the main reason why I shall not be lending Watkins my vote is because he has repeatedly said he would like to “rip up” the European Convention on Human Rights and the Geneva Convention. It is admittedly impressive that a Liberal Democrat is able to attack Phil Woolas from the right on immigration and asylum issues, and if I think about it too much my head will probably explode.
Given the sluggish Tory campaign, the next MP for Oldham East and Saddleworth will almost certainly be either Debbie Abrahams or Elwyn Watkins. Despite what I’ve said above, I would not be too displeased with either of them as my MP, for all their faults. They would both certainly be an improvement on the previous incumbent.
However, I am going to vote Green on Thursday, for Peter Allen. I met him on Uppermill High Street last Saturday, and he came across as down-to-earth and friendly. I’ve written before that I was impressed by Caroline Lucas at the Green Conference in Birmingham, whilst some of my favourite bloggers are Greens. They are also the only party that have a coherent anti-cuts message, and for that alone they deserve backing.