How LAB is using Douglas Carswell's tax credit vote in the Oldham W & R by-election. pic.twitter.com/aaEdtgLyZ9
— Mike Smithson (@MSmithsonPB) November 5, 2015
Joy, meh and despair
So for the second parliament running, the first by-election in it will take place in Oldham. Unlike neighbouring Oldham East & Saddleworth, Michael Meacherâ€™s former seat does not, on the face of it, look all that interesting: it reliably returned Labour members for decades and did so with a majority of close to 15,000 and more than half the vote last time out. Against a Conservative government, a nailed-on Labour hold, surely? Certainly it ought to be but Corbynâ€™s first electoral test as Labour leader is not quite as simple as all that. So what will the parties be looking for out of the result?
Holding the seat is setting the bar for success extremely low but also the practical target. Even if their majority is slashed, itâ€™ll be nothing more than a Westminster bubble story; a hold is a hold. That was demonstrated after the by-elections on October 9 last year when the lead news story was UKIPâ€™s historic gain in Clacton; their near-miss in Heywood & Middleton was relegated to a footnote despite being objectively more surprising. So Labourâ€™s first objective will simply be to get it out of the way without sustaining damage. Why might they be worried? Apart from the factors favouring UKIP (of which more below), early December is not a time likely to produce a high turnout. The numerical majority will inevitably be cut as a result; more meaningful will be the change in Labourâ€™s vote lead. A good comparison might be the Wythenshawe & Sale East by-election, held in February 2014, where despite a turnout of just 28%, Labour still managed to persuade over 13,000 voters to back them, increasing both their vote share and lead in the share. Put another way, dark and cold weather, and other distractions, affect all parties but affect those with the least-motivated supporters most: environmental conditions are no excuse (something which holds true for all parties). Increasing both those figures ought to be Labourâ€™s target in Oldham too. I expect them to fall well short.
OW&R was typical of UKIPâ€™s performance in many seats in 2015: a solid breakthrough, a second place and plenty of votes but ultimately nothing to show for it except perhaps a launch-pad for the future. If that potential launch-pad is to have any meaning then that future has come. Nigel Farageâ€™s party needs to put in a strong showing if they are to establish themselves as the clear challengers to Labour in the working class urban north. To that extent, how far they finish ahead of the Tories almost matters more than how close they get to Labour. Clearly, while the best result would be a win, being clearly seen as the only viable alternative to Labour would still represent an acceptable outcome.
How realistic is that win? Realistic enough that Labour should worry, despite having made a sensible choice for their candidate on Thursday. UKIP too has a strong candidate in John Bickley (who nearly gained Heywood & Middleton last year), and Corbynâ€™s election as Labour leader is a decidedly mixed blessing to his party, bringing many new activists but also unelectability. That said, for a by-election, where the government of the country isnâ€™t at stake, activists should matter more than electability, provided that they know what theyâ€™re doing. The message is as important as the manpower: Labourâ€™s millions of doorstep conversations had little impact in April. Admittedly, not all of Oldham W will be all that receptive to UKIPâ€™s message either â€“ selling an anti-immigration policy to its sizable Pakistani-heritage population being a particularly tough ask â€“ but most of the voters are not of that ethnicity and that the BNP picked up a 16.4% share in 2001 (just after the Oldham riots) canâ€™t be ignored. How UKIP interplay the immigration question with Corbynâ€™s stance will be fascinating to watch as thereâ€™s a fine line between on the one hand effectively exploiting a campaign weakness and on the other, being seen to stoke racial tension.
The Tories slipped to third in OE&R at the general election and third is the summit of realistic Conservative ambitions. For all that the party gained the seat the last time there was a by-election here (1968), that was a lifetime ago. Simply staying in the game and not suffering too great a drop in vote share has to be the objective. There will no doubt be some amateur strategists who feel that thereâ€™d be no harm lending UKIP a hand by soft-pedalling. Such thinking is wrong on two counts. Firstly, the Tories canâ€™t allow themselves to be wiped out in working-class areas. True, theyâ€™ve always been a minority taste there but thereâ€™s a big difference between winning one vote in five and one vote in thirty; a position the Lib Dems now find themselves in in many places. But secondly, if UKIP do win or come very close to doing so, that will put pressure on Corbynâ€™s leadership. That may be an acceptable consequence of Conservative success but itâ€™s certainly not an outcome CCHQ will be wishing for.
There was a time when the Lib Dems might have looked at a by-election in OW&R with some anticipation. That time was about a decade ago when they took seats like Leicester South or Dunfermline and West Fife from Labour. How the world changes. Obviously, Labour is no longer the easy pickings they were towards the end of their time in government but more relevantly, the Lib Dems are far, far from the by-election kings of old, or, for that matter the national force either (they lost their deposits in both the aforementioned Leicester South and Dunfermline & W Fife seats at the 2015 elections). Avoiding losing their deposit will be the most they can hope for and, in all probability, more than they can hope for.
As yet there arenâ€™t any other declared candidates but others will no doubt come forward. Two types are particularly worth commenting on. I donâ€™t expect a Galloway/Respect-type candidate to have any significant impact. I know I said this before Bradford West but firstly, Galloway himself is himself a one-off and is unlikely to stand given his apparent focus on London. In any case, cats only have so many lives. One reason why I was sceptical about Galloway in Bradford was that Asian/Muslim-centred politics had never translated well into British politics before. That one exception aside (and that includes Bradford West at the general election), they still havenâ€™t. And OW&R’s Asian vote is much smaller than Bradford West’s.
The other is whether any other meaningful anti-immigration party or candidate stands. UKIP has set its stall as populist rather than extremist. Thatâ€™s fine as far as it goes but if, say, the BNP nominate someone (and given their performance in the seat in 2001, itâ€™s not impossible, despite their virtual collapse recently), that will not only split some of the vote from UKIP but will also make it harder for UKIP to address the issue at all without appearing to place themselves on the same side of the dividing line as a vocal far right: a card Labour would almost certainly play.
Labour ought to win. There is frankly no excuse for losing a seat like this in opposition (only once since WWII has an opposition party lost a seat with a larger majority â€“ Glasgow Govan, 1988 â€“ although two other by-elections gains also required larger swings than is needed in OW&R: Govan again, in 1973, and Bermondsey, 1983). That said, many of the conditions exist for UKIP to do very well and the result will probably depend on the respective turnout of the two partiesâ€™ potential supporters: who is most motivated and who will return their postal votes? To answer that is to raise the race question. The reality is that Labourâ€™s ethnic minority support is likely to be their most solid base but a campaign based on â€˜getting the vote outâ€™ could appear to be Asian-centric to WWC voters, driving them further from Labour. There is an undoubted potential for it to get quite nasty, particularly if it also gets close. And close it might well get. UKIPâ€™s top-price at the moment is 8/1 with Ladbrokes and thatâ€™s where the value lies.