In the early hours of Friday morning, after a short but intense campaign, the British Labour party won a by-election that had been billed as the first test of the coalition government. The purpose of the election was to fill a seat left vacant in the Greater Manchester constituency of Oldham East and Saddleworth late last year. The high profile ex-MP who previously held the seat, former Labour immigration minister Phil Woolas,was barred from office in November for three years after High Court judges ruled he had circulated lies about an opposition candidate in the lead up to the May general election.
Many commentators felt that the resulting by-election, to replace Woolas, would cast a bright light on the present popularity (or unpopularity) of each of the three major parties. Some predicted that the Lib Dems would take a hammering as a consequence of their widely perceived political subservience to the Tories, although various pollsters suggested the party might actually be in with a shot at a narrow victory. In the eyes of many, including the bookmakers, Labour were the clear favorites.
Undeniably it was a two horse race between the Lib Dems and Labour. The Tories were not in with a chance, but it was felt that Tory voters could still potentially prove highly significant. If they decided to vote tactically for the Lib Dems, as prime minister David Cameron at one point himself appeared to suggest, then they could perhaps prevent a Labour victory.
At the count in Oldham on Thursday night, I stood outside the town’s Civic Centre and chatted to a young Labour activist. He was an asian man, Oldham born and bred, with a thick mancunian accent. On his black waterproof coat, a red and yellow Labour “Vote Debbie Abrahams” rosette was proudly pinned. We talked about the by-election and I told him some people were even predicting a narrow Lib Dem win. He looked perplexed by the suggestion. “This is a Labour town,” he told me, sternly. “Yea, it’s been a tough one – but we will win.”
I was struck by his confidence. The ballot boxes were literally still streaming past us into the building, but this man never came to find out the winner. He came only to celebrate.
Inside the Civic Centre, the nation’s media were congregated upstairs on a large balcony overlooking the floor where the ballots were being counted. It was not long after 10.30pm and there was quite a strange, nervy atmosphere. Campaign managers were mulling around, Hazel Blears was giving an interview on BBC Radio 5 Live, and the sound of chatter was occasionally punctuated by howls and other bizarre animal noises made by the colourful entourage accompanying Monster Raving Loony Party candidate Nick the Flying Brick.
Early on most of the political figures talking to the press were reluctant to speculate. Andy Burnham, who was managing Labour candidate Debbie Abrahams' campaign, was roaming around the room giving interviews. He appeared confident, but was making no bold statements. Instead, he spent time offering his assessment of David Cameron’s handling of the Tory campaign. “You’ve had some undecidedly odd messages from the prime minister,” he said, in reference to well-publicised remarks made by Cameron in December. “You know, it’s almost like a coded invitation to vote tactically. The question is: what has happened to the Tory vote? I think that is what is going to decide this election.”
Only about 40 or so minutes later, at about 11.40pm, there was a distinct change in atmosphere. It came when Tim Farron, the Lib Dem president, began giving interviews. He spoke about how the election had been a “cathartic process” and a “really great by-election that had unified the party.” And then when asked about his thoughts on the result, he suddenly proclaimed the party were expecting to come a “strong second.” It was the first real concession of the evening.
Tory campaign manager (and MP for Pendle), Andrew Stephenson, soon followed suit. Not long after Farron’s remarks, he predicted Labour were “significantly ahead” by three to four thousand votes and acknowledged: “We’re down but we’re not that bad … We’ve been squeezed.”
By the time it had reached 12.30am, there was no one left in the building who believed the result was going to be anything other than a Labour victory. About 45 minutes before the full results were announced, Andy Burnham presented Debbie Abrahams with a bouquet of flowers on the count floor to massive applause. There was clapping and cheering; it was clearly now all over. A few minutes later, Lib Dem candidate Elwyn Watkins – the man who took Phil Woolas to court and won – could be seen humbly approaching Abrahams to shake hands and concede defeat.
The full results were announced at about 1.50am:
The young Labour activist was right to be confident; Abrahams had won with a significant majority. Using her victory speech to attack the coalition, she thanked voters before sharply criticising deputy prime minister Nick Clegg for “treating the voters with contempt”, condemning the Lib Dems’ backing of the VAT rise, police cuts and tuitions fees. “Across the country there is growing anger against your wreckless policies, your broken promises and your unfair cuts,” she said of the coalition. “You are making the wrong judgments for the long term of our country.”
It was immediately apparent, however, that the big story would not be Abrahams' speech – which was fairly predictable – but the tiny proportion of the votes (12.8%) won by the Tories. Tory candidate Kashif Ali tried to remain positive, and was quite dismissive of any suggestion that David Cameron had not offered him support. Several grassroots Tory campaigners I spoke to were disgruntled by the lack of support from headquarters, but not Kashif, who may well have been thinking of his future when he issued comment.
“We had a fantastic amount of support and a good campaign,” he said. “I think, among voters, certainly there was some tactical voting. But that's exactly what happens in by-elections, which is why third parties get squeezed. So I don't think anything unusual has happened here.”
There was a solid frenzy for about 45 minutes after the results were announced. Amid the media scrum, Andy Burnham also issued his post result statement. Again the Tories and David Cameron were his targets. “While we were out [campaigning] on the hills of Saddleworth, the Tories were skiing the slopes of Klosters,” he said. “Cameron will be facing a post-mortem next week when he gets back to Westminster, because they fought a half-hearted campaign … and they’ve been punished at the polls. I think traditional Tory MPs will get back next week and they will be raising some very serious questions about their tactics.”
Then, at just after 2am, a few words arrived from Nick Clegg that seemed to directly address some of Abrahams' pointed criticism. “By 2015,” he wrote, “I hope that the people of Oldham and Saddleworth will see, like everyone else in the country, that the difficult choices we made were the right ones and that Britain is in better shape than when we entered government.”
By 2.45am only the stragglers were left in the Oldham Civic Centre, most of them from the BBC. A cleaner was mopping up the debris, while in the empty cafeteria, a smiling Debbie Abrahams posed for a series of photos with her family before she headed home. “It just hasn’t sunk in yet,” she said. The camera flash lit up the room, and a few short moments later they were gone.
Now in the aftermath of the result, it is fair to say that nothing spectacular happened in Oldham. Labour were the favorites, and they won. The margin was slightly larger than some expected, but there was no great historical aberration, as scrutiny of previous election results in the constituency will testify.
My general feeling is in fact that Labour could have selected a plastic manikin for candidacy in the constituency, and it would still have been elected. Because regardless of the wider issues and the vast diversity between red brick, industrial Oldham and tranquil, scenic Saddleworth, the constituency in essence remains, as the young activist kindly reminded me, a Labour stronghold.
The key lesson is perhaps then that by-elections should not, and cannot, be treated like general elections. It is problematic to attempt to analyse and predict them in the same way, because each constituency is full of its own complexities and idiosyncrasies that to some degree transcend national narratives, and it is not always possible to superimpose the one dimensional politics of Westminster onto two dimensional constituencies like Oldham East and Saddleworth.
There is definitely much more discussion to be had about the by-election, and careful analysis – particularly in relation to tactical voting – will no doubt reveal some interesting details. Burnham’s prediction has already come true in that Tory rightwingers are apparently disgruntled at the party’s weak campaigning prior to the by-election, and are planning to take some action to reassert “a more distinctive Tory message.”
But undoubtedly the grumbles made by the old Tories will soon rise and fall, slowly but surely – destined only to eventually disappear, much like the memory of this by-election, quietly and gently into the footnotes of history.
This article originally appeared at: http://www.opendemocracy.net/ourkingdom/ryan-gallagher/oldham-by-election-coalitions-first-test-by-ballot-box-ends-in-labour-vict