Oldham East & Saddleworth (UK) by-election

Map of Oldham East and Saddleworth

The first by-election of the British Parliament since the May 2010 general election took place yesterday, January 13, in Oldham East and Saddleworth. This by-election came in somewhat unique circumstances, after an election court voided the result of the original vote in May 2010 after LibDem candidate Elwyn Watkins, who lost by 103 votes in May, petitioned for the result to be voided based on the nasty campaigning between former Labour MP Phil Woolas and Elwyn Watkins back in May. Attacks on Watkins by Woolas apparently breached the terms of the Representation of the People Act 1983 by making false statements about his personal character. Woolas, known not only for his controversial statements on Islam, also has a long history of making contests very nasty since 1995.

Oldham East and Saddleworth, which basically covers the eastern part of the largely working-class town of Oldham in addition to the middle-class commuter town of Saddleworth was created in 1997. Prior to that, most of it had been in Littleborough & Saddleworth, a traditionally Conservative seat where the Liberals, not Labour, were the main rivals. The area’s history of nasty contests began with the 1995 election in the old Littleborough & Saddleworth, held at the peak of John Major’s unpopularity. The Tories’ vote collapsed by 21 points, to the benefit of the LibDems’ Chris Davies, who gained the seat with a 4.7% majority over Labour’s Phil Woolas. The by-election campaign was particularly nasty, with Woolas accusing Davis of being “high on tax and soft on drugs”. The inclusion of more working-class parts of the old Oldham Central & Royton were unfavourable to Davies, who lost to Woolas by a 6% margin in the 1997 election in the new seat. Woolas’ majority reached 8% in 2005, but the seat has never been particularly safe for Labour, unlike Oldham West and Royton. In 2010, Woolas, who experimented with some particularly nasty methods again, held on by a hair against LibDem opponent Elwyn Watkins. The Conservatives, which lack a good organization and local government base in the constituency, recovered from their 1995 drubbing only in 2010, when Kashif Ali managed to increase the Tory vote by 8.7% to win 26.4%. The BNP, which had won 11% here in 2001 in the aftermath of race riots, won 5.7% in 2010. There had been rumours that BNP leader Nick Griffin might stand in the by-election, but did not in the end. The BNP’s organization in the area collapsed after their 2001 boom, and the party has been going through internal feuds since their disappointing 2010 showing.

Aside from the unique circumstances of this election, and the unique fact that the LibDems were the ones with the power to move the writ for the by-election (instead of the incumbent party, as is usually the case); this by-election was all the more interesting because it is the first one since the formation of the ConDem coalition in May. Both parties stood candidates after all, but all eyes were on the LibDem vote. Their vote here is probably largely centre-right, being concentrated in the middle-class areas of the seat such as Saddleworth, of a type which might be amenable to voting Tory in other, more “traditional” constituencies. Yet, polls have been showing that the LibDems have suffered a lot from going into coalition with Cameron’s Tories and that they were leaking lots of vote from their left to Labour. The results of the by-election provide an interesting look at the LibDem’s vote:

Debbie Abrahams (Labour) 42.14% (+10.27%)
Elwyn Watkins (Liberal Democrat) 31.95% (+0.32%)
Kashif Ali (Conservative) 12.83% (-13.62%)
Paul Nuttall (UKIP) 5.81% (+1.95%)
Derek Adams (BNP) 4.47% (-1.25%)
Peter Allen (Green) 1.52%
The Flying Brick (Monster Raving Loony Party) 0.42%
Stephen Morris (English Democrats) 0.41%
Loz Kaye (Pirate Party) 0.27%
David Bishop (Bus-Pass Elvis Party) 0.19%

Labour holds the seat with a majority of 10.2%, which means a majority and a popular vote share higher than 2005 and 1997 (the Labour majority in 2005 was actually higher than that of 1997, which is not all that mind-boggling given that Labour was on the offensive against a non-Tory incumbent in 1997). Its vote share is up 10.3%, a figure similar to its vote increase back in the 1995 by-election. Yet, the LibDem vote is also marginally up. The headline figures thus hide something. The Liberal Democrats picked up tactical votes from the Tories who voted LibDem to throw Labour out. This resulted in the Conservative vote collapsing to an all-time low, lower than even 1997. The Liberal Democrats picking up votes from their right was at the same neutralized by what was probably a pretty important leak of votes from its left to Labour. Labour’s vote, after all, went up quite dramatically and it can really only be at the expense of the LibDems. Turnout was 48%, which is good for a winter by-election, and this definitely helped Labour. The LibDems moving the writ for an election in early January was deliberate to minimize Labour turnout, but a Labour GOTV campaign proved quite effective. Paul Nuttall, a UKIP MEP, won a good result – polling ahead of the BNP here of all places, and likely picked up a few Tory votes. The BNP might have suffered from its internal divisions, a higher than expected turnout or its inexistent local organization in Oldham.

Extrapolating the world from a by-election is always a dreadfully bad idea, but doing so from the first by-election in a Parliament is even worse. Yet, the results of the by-election here are unambiguously favourable to Labour. On balance, they are unfavourable to the Liberal Democrats given that they benefited from Tory tactical voting which compensated for a big leakage to Labour. In other constituencies, where the LibDems don’t have a strong base and are on the long-shot offensive from third or distant second, they will not benefit from such tactical voting. In fact, they’ll suffer from it. The image is bleak for the Tories, but I wouldn’t take too much out from this by-election. A by-election in a seat where contests are usually Labour vs. Conservative with the LibDems a non-threatening third would perhaps be more interesting and more informative.

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Posted on January 14, 2011, in By-elections, United Kingdom. Bookmark the permalink. 1 Comment.

  1. The conservatives admitted that they only went into the election at half strength because they didn’t want to embarrass the Lib Dems. I’d assume that 10% of Tory votes went to the Lib Dems and 10% of the Lib Dem votes to Labour – although it’s never quite that simple is it?

    Old&Sad had been a deeply (for the UK at least) racially divided seat with the white working class voting Labour, the white middle class voting Conservative (I simplify) and the significant south asian population voting Lib Dem. Indeed, as you allude, the by election was caused when Labour’s attempts to in their own words “make the white folk angry” crossed the line from distasteful into illegal.

    However, interestingly, I hear that for once race played little part in this election. I imagine all sides agreed to tone down the rhetoric after what happened in the GE.

    For me the interesting thing is to compare the gradual fall in the Lib Dem vote (http://ukpollingreport.co.uk/voting-intention) and the collapse of the German Free Democrats (http://www.economist.com/node/17805671?story_id=17805671&fsrc=rss) bearing in mind that the FDP are a year and a bit further down the line. Of course in the former case it could just be a mid term slump – but it could also not be.

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