Some thoughts on the Oldham East & Saddleworth by-election

Voters in Oldham East & Saddleworth go to the polls today to elect a new Member of Parliament, after Phil Woolas’ victory in May was overturned by a court ruling that he had lied about his Liberal Democrat opponent, Elwyn Watkins, in campaign literature.

Watkins, who lost in May by just 103 votes, is again the Lib Dem candidate, with Debbie Abrahams – Labour candidate for Colne Valley in May, and wife of former Lancashire cricketer John Abrahams – aiming to win the seat for Labour.

Opinion polls by ICM and Populus put Labour comfortably ahead earlier in the week, though this is no reason for complacency as by-election polls are notoriously unreliable, and are even thought to influence the result. A third opinion poll, by a company called Survation, put Labour and the Lib Dems neck-and-neck, with the Conservatives down to single figures.

This poll was highlighted by Lib Dem party president Tim Farron in an email to activists – however, given Survation’s untested polling reputation, their extraordinarily high refusal rate (and correspondingly small sample size) and simplistic weighting techniques, it is likely that this poll is the psephological equivalent of sacrificing a goat and reading the entrails.

Labour cannot afford to be complacent, even though they entered the final week of campaigning in the knowledge that they had a comfortable lead. Typically toxic Lib Dem campaign literature has been circulating in the constituency (with little acknowledgement that it comes from the Lib Dems, of course), and getting the vote out today will be the biggest challenge for Labour. Turnout is always a factor in by-elections, and with Labour voters being by far the least likely to turn out, it is certainly possible that the Lib Dems could scoop a surprise victory.

Other contenders for a surprise victory might have been the Conservatives – Kashif Ali finished under 3,000 votes behind Woolas in May, making this seat a true three-way marginal – but the campaign from Conservative head office, at least, has seemed to involve promoting the Lib Dems, and ensuring that they do not fall into an embarrassing third place – a situation that might otherwise be likely, given the way the national opinion polls look for the Lib Dems at the moment.

If I, as a Labour activist, were campaigning on behalf of a non-Labour candidate, I would be expelled from the party. Yet David Cameron and other senior Conservative figures have been promoting tactical voting for the Liberal Democrats since this campaign began. If I were a member of the local Conservative association, I’d be fuming, given that they should have been in with a chance of winning the seat.

The other issue is the idea, often raised by commentators, that Labour will be hurt and the Lib Dems helped by the situation in which the by-election arose – Phil Woolas’ victory having been overturned and his having been suspended from the Labour Party in disgrace. While this is certainly possible, not enough attention has been paid to the other possibility – that voters will view the court case and subsequent by-election as sour grapes on the part of Watkins, attempting to do in the courts what he could not get done at the ballot box. A similar feeling certainly contributed to the massive Lib Dem victory in the Winchester by-election of 1997, after the Tories had the original result overturned, having lost in the general election by two votes.

Certainly it is an interesting quirk of electoral law that a result can be overturned as a result of one candidate lying about another, but not due to a candidate lying about himself.

A victory for Labour in the by-election would send a strong message to the government, firstly that the people of Oldham East and Saddleworth do not support the coalition’s cuts programme, and secondly that the concept of an “electoral pact” such as the one Cameron and co. are implicitly trying to foster here is dead in the water.

Let’s hope that the hard work of Labour activists, both from within the constituency and outside, are successful and that we Keep Oldham Labour.

Update: Debbie Abrahams did indeed win the by-election, with 42% of the vote compared to Elwyn Watkins’ 32%. The Tory vote share declined 14 points after massive tactical voting to prop up the Liberal Democrats.

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