Friday, 14 January 2011

A Game of Texas Oldham ?

Last night's Oldham East & Saddleworth by-election contains both good and bad news for all three main parties. In many senses, it tells us nothing or very little since its circumstances (the disqualification of Phil Woolas) are not "usual".

In the end, Labour comfortably retained the seat with a solid 3,558 majority as the weekend polls had predicted. Their vote share was up over 10% and in terms of actual votes cast this was a solid performance though of course for an Opposition defending a seat against an unpopular Government it wasn't perhaps that remarkable. Indeed, it could be argued this was a disappointing performance for a Labour Party establishing a solid national poll lead.

For the Liberal Democrats, it was an unremarkable effort at face value but perhaps a recognition that sometimes a lot of effort may not achieve what you do want rather than preventing what you don't. Third place wasn't impossible and a vote share of over 30% represents a solid effort for a party which in YouGov polls has plunged to 7% though still at 11-13% with other pollsters. Perhaps the overriding emotion in Lib Dem circles today should be relief rather than joy.

The Conservatives have, on the face of it, suffered most with their vote share halved and their total vote numbers well down. That would, I think, be misleading. Two factors were at play here - the strong Conservsative performance in May probably stopped Elwyn Watkins taking the seat and once the Liberal Democrats had been established in second place, it was always going to be difficult for their candidate.

The second factor is perhaps the darker side of the Coalition - many on the anti-Coalition wing of the Conservative Party are saying insufficient effort was put in by CCHQ and that the seat was winnable. There seems some evidence to support this and indeed many on the Tory Right might argue that there was an implicit call for Conservatives to back the Liberal Democrat candidate. I'm not on the ground - I don't know if the Conservative campaign was lacklustre or not. David Cameron certainly visited the Constituency and supported the Conservative candidate but there is still a sense of unease in Conservative circles.

Of perhaps more concern was or were the strong performances by UKIP and BNP respectively who captured just over 10% between them and suggests that opposition to the Coalition parties may not just simply fall to Labour but could fragment elsewhere.

As with most by-elections, cause for celebration (or relief) mixed with cause for concern all round. The next contest at Barnsley Central may well be similar though I wouldn't be surprised if the Conservatives finished second with the Liberal Democrats a bad third.

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