So, at the end of all that, it’s a Labour hold. It feels like an anti-climactical end to a roller-coaster of an eight months for the Oldham East and Saddleworth constituency. We’ve had one of the bitterest general election campaigns fought in recent years, two recounts, a wafer-thin majority, a court case, an MP leaving in disgrace and, according to the Independent, “the most unusual by-election ever“.
Now Debbie Abrahams has been elected as the Labour MP (full results here), the area should return to some sort of normality until 2015, the most likely date for the general election. I doubt anyone living in Oldham East wants to see any election leaflet until then; everyone is suffering from election fatigue.
I’ve been saying on Twitter and Facebook (and to anyone who would listen) that Labour would hold Oldham East for about the past week or two. This has hardly involved sticking my neck out much, though. Ever since the polls showed that Labour were 17 points ahead on Sunday, the result has felt a bit of a formality.
In May, 14,186 people voted for the Devil Incarnate with a Labour rosette attached to it. The Labour vote would only have gone up since then, given their boost in the polls. In contrast, the Lib Dem vote of 14,083 would only have gone down, despite a significant amount of tactical voting from the Tories.
To win this by-election, the Lib Dems were relying on two factors. Firstly, that the personal vote that Elwyn Watkins had developed would over-ride his party’s current chronic unpopularity. Second, that people voted Lib Dem out of a sense of injustice and outrage over Phil Woolas’s leaflets. Both these factors turned out to be insufficient.
The Woolas shenanigans has not been a factor in the campaign. Both Debbie Abrahams and Kashif Ali have said that it just was not a doorstep issue. I’ve mentioned before that it was a big issue for me, but it really isn’t that surprising that most residents of Oldham East and Saddleworth don’t care much about it. After all, we have the biggest cuts to public spending in living memory coming up. That’s a much bigger issue then who-said-what in an election leaflet eight months ago, and I say this as someone who thinks that the Woolas case is, to paraphrase Joe Biden, a pretty big deal. The fact that anger over cuts seems to have caused people to vote Labour, who would have made the majority of these cuts had they been in power anyway, seems to be by-the-by.
The big story here: disaster for the Lib Dems
Let nobody try and persuade you otherwise: this is a terrible result for the Lib Dems.
Saddleworth is, as one of their main organisers in Oldham put it to me, “the kind of area where people vote Lib Dem because their parents do”. That kind of area is thin on the ground. It was also a by-election, where the Lib Dems generally excel, in a constituency where they only finished 103 votes behind Labour in May. They had a reasonably popular local candidate, hundreds of activists on the ground, and Nick Clegg visited Oldham three times. Not to mention the fact that their campaign had a head start of both Labour and the Tories, and they also moved a writ to hold the by-election as early as possible.
Nick Thornsby has been admirably trying some damage-limitation. He said last night:
A Labour majority of 3,558 is less than Phil Woolas achieved in 2005, when the seat was identified as a target by the Liberal Democrats – not an outstanding result for them by any means.
Ah yes, 2005. When the Lib Dem candidate was Tony Dawson, who screwed up his party’s chances of gaining a winnable target seat by, as I recall:
a) Claiming he lived in the constituency when he actually lived in Southport
b) Being accused of doctoring photos on election literature
c) Making obscene comments on internet forums
You could hardly claim, then, that 2005 was a high water mark in Lib Dem support.
The other argument against a Lib Dem collapse is the fact that their share of the vote actually increased. However, this rose from 31.63% in May to the heady heights of, er, 31.9% yesterday. The number of Lib Dem votes actually fell by almost 3000, and would have fallen by much more were it not for tactical voting from some Conservatives. UK Polling Report reckon that at least 22% of Tory voters switched to the Lib Dems. Most of the other Lib Dem voters, it seems, just did not turn up at all.
The Lib Dems really believed they could win this by-election; for them not to makes you wonder where they can win at all now.
The strange collapse of the Tory vote
Baroness Warsi has been on the radio talking about how effective the Tory campaign was, despite losing 6500 votes from May. In some respects, Warsi was the perfect choice from the Conservatives to front the by-election campaign. On the one hand, she is a senior Tory (party chair, no less), Northern, Asian, and therefore could connect to the large Asian vote. On the other hand, she is completely incompetent and a liability. For an election where the Tories didn’t really want to win, but wanted to pretend that they did, Warsi was the perfect choice.
In any other situation where the Tories finished 2,500 votes behind Labour, there would have been a massive Tory campaign to win the seat in a subsequent by-election, and potentially destablise Ed Miliband’s leadership. Arif Ansari, the BBC’s political editor in the Northwest, made the point last night that whilst the Lib Dems and Labour were constantly telling him what events they were planning and who was coming to the constituency, he was having to chase the Tories to work out what was going on with their campaign. Then, when David Cameron did campaign in the constituency, he forgot the candidate’s name.
This blog from Guido Fawkes gives some of the reasons Tory activists were grumbling about their by-election campaign. It inclues this briefing note that was given in the last week of the campaign:
Suggesting they hadn’t updated their briefing notes since November. Nice one.
Still, we probably cannot read too much into this result. It’s been a Labour seat since 1997, governing parties don’t usually win by-elections, and there’s a long way to go until the next election. However, we do know now what the political narrative of the next year will be: the crumbling Lib Dem vote.