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Oldham: The “Yes, But” By-Election

16/01/2011

Oldham East and Saddleworth: Labour hold

2010 result:

Labour: 14,186 (31.9%)
Liberal Democrat: 14,083 (31.6%)
Conservative: 11,773 (26.4%)
BNP: 2,546 (5.7%)
UKIP: 1,720 (3.9%)
Christian Party: 212 (0.5%)

Turnout: 44,520

By-Election result:

Labour: 14,718 (42.1%, up 10.2%, 532 votes)
Lib Dems: 11,160 (31.9%, up 0.3%, down 2,923 votes)
Conservatives: 4,481 (12.8%, down 13.6%, 7,292 votes)
UKIP: 2,029 (5.8%, up 1.9%, 309 votes)
BNP: 1,560 (4.5%, down 1.2%, 986 votes)
Green Party: 530 (1.5%)
Monster Raving Loony Party: 145 (0.4%)
English Democrats: 144 (0.4%)
Pirate Party: 96 (0.2%)
Bus Pass Elvis Party: 67 (0.1%)

Turnout: 34,930 (down 9,590 votes)

So, what happened?

For Labour, this is obviously a good result. The party increased its vote share by more than 10%, and even increased its poll (not bad in a By-Election). Moreover, Debbie Abrahams enjoys a majority bigger than any majority enjoyed by her disgraced predecessor, Phil Woolas, and he, remember, was elected at the high watermark of 1997. So it’s very easy for Ed Miliband to feel vindicated.

But scratch the surface.

We know that Labour has attracted additional voters since May. But who are they? Are they Labour voters, coming back? Or are they LibDem supporters (or even Tory supporters) sticking up two fingers at their own party to register displeasure?

If it’s the former, that’s good news for the Leadership: it means Miliband is on the right track. But if it’s the latter, he has a problem: pissed-off voters might change their allegiances, but their change isn’t permanent: just as all those people who were pissed off enough with Labour to switch to the LibDems. Are they really going to stick with them after five years of Coalition with the Tories? And that’s the problem: their support is transient. If Nick Clegg gets his groove back, or Ed Miliband mis-steps, that gain disappears. There’s also the issue of other parties getting in the way: it’s been acknowledged that a strong Green presence held LibDem advances back: protest voters went for the former instead of the latter. That Green presence could end up holding Labour back now, and let’s not forget the SNP and Plaid either. There is nothing written that the LibDems’ loss has to be Labour’s gain. This could be morning for Labour; it could equally be a false dawn.

Then there are the LibDems. The pundits predicted wipeout, but the LibDem vote share actually went up, despite Elwyn Watkins making a net loss of almost 3,000 votes. What’s clear is that he was seen not just as the LibDem candidate, but the Coalition candidate, so lost existing support which switched to Labour, but picked up support from the Tories as the best bet for beating Labour. The upshot is that although the LibDems can claim that reports of their demise are greatly exaggerated, they’re on a Tory life support machine. What happens to the party, then, where the LibDems and Tories are in direct competition? What happens in elections to Holyrood? Cardiff Bay? Local councils? Europe? Just as we don’t know where Labour support has come from, we don’t know where LibDem support is going.

And what of the Tories? This was a wipeout, and no mistake. Their vote share more than halved and their total poll was slashed. The result has been a morass of recrimination within the Tory Party, with the Right especially up in arms. In theory, it looks bad for the Tories. But not as bad as you might think: it seems the votes largely stayed within the Coalition. Some may have stayed at home. Not that many voters switched to Labour. Fewer voters switched to UKIP – the real threat. If they form a real, credible challenge to the Tories from the Right, the party is potentially in trouble. That threat isn’t here yet.

All the same, one issue lingers for the Tories: yes, their votes switched tactically to the LibDem candidate, but how do we know that LibDem voters might reciprocate in Labour/Tory contests? Of course, we don’t know that, and at the moment, it looks more likely that they might switch to Labour in exasperation at the Coalition than switch to the Tories to keep it going. So surprisingly, it could be a lot worse for the Tories, but there’s no disputing that it could be a lot better as well.

This is, however, a good result for UKIP: they kept their deposit and emerged as the “best of the rest”, beating the BNP who have cause to see Oldham as a stronghold. While they don’t appear to have attracted many Tory defectees, it’s progress, and gives them a springboard and extra credibility. Few people seem to have mentioned this as a story – it’s worth following.

Then there are the BNP. This is a disaster for them: losing their deposit and falling behind UKIP, in a situation where none of the big parties covered themselves in glory, immigration was a key issue (and the exploitation of the fear of immigration set in motion the event that led to this By-Election, remember), and this in a part of the country where they’ve previously made hay: it’s only ten years ago that they took more than 11% in this seat with five thousand votes. Now, they can’t manage half that percentage and looking at votes rather than vote share, they’ve lost almost two fifths of their support in the space of eight months. That’s bad news for them… and as long as the other parties don’t get complacent, it’s potentially good news for everyone else.

Now, we await Barnsley Central…

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