Oldham by-election: at the count

Saturday, 15 January 2011

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.

In Retrospect

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

Oldham by-election

Thursday, 13 January 2011

The soon-to-be-concluded Oldham East and Saddleworth by-election has been billed as the first test of the coalition government. Since former Labour immigration minister Phil Woolas was removed from the seat in November following a high profile court case over dubious election leaflets, candidates have been hot on the campaign trail.

Labour, who are fielding former public health consultant Debbie Abrahams as their candidate, are the clear favourites. The party have won every election in the constituency since its inception in 1997, but there are those who believe this election will be a closer call than expected.

It is undoubtedly a two horse race between Labour and the Lib Dems, and the Tories will almost certainly be the third-place party. David Cameron has done little to back the Tory candidate, Kashif Ali, and has made it fairly obvious he hopes for a Lib Dem victory. The key question is, then: how big a chunk of the vote will the Lib Dems win?

Some are predicting that Elwyn Walkins, the Lib Dem candidate, will do poorly as a result of his party’s collusion in government with the Tories. Others, however, have suggested that he could still be in with a shot. One poll for the Mail on Sunday, for instance, found that Watkins was the favoured candidate by a very slim margin.

Significantly, according to the latest available census data for the constituency (2001), only 2.7% of those eligible to vote in the area are full-time students. This could turn out to be a pivotal factor, particularly considering the huge unpopularity of the Lib Dems amongst students in light of the tuition fees debacle.

There has historically been strong support for the Lib Dems in Oldham and Saddleworth, but on a number of levels this election is a test case, hence the widespread speculation and debate over the outcome. The constitency itself is only 14 years old, and even pensioners will struggle to recall the last time a Liberal party was in bed with the Conservatives. While the proportion of students in Oldham and Saddleworth may be relatively miniscule, for traditional Liberal voters, too, Nick Clegg’s perceived subservience to David Cameron and Tory policy may be a step too far.

One of the few certainties is that, despite Phil Woolas being found guilty of publishing lies about an opponent last year, in this election Labour as a party will likely remain relatively undamaged by Woolas’s wrongdoing. This is principally because there is a high proportion of older generation voters – particularly in Oldham, not so much in Saddleworth – that are old Labour: working class, ex factory workers for whom voting Labour is as much a tradition as is a Sunday roast dinner. For many of these people – and I know this from having spoken to a decent cross-section of them in and around the town – Woolas did nothing wrong and Elwyn Watkins was just a sore loser.

And yet despite the huge controversy surrounding Phil Woolas’s election materials last time round, this by-election has been far from clean fought. Labour were accused by the Lib Dems last week of “playing dirty again” by publishing “deliberately misleading information”. Debbie Abrahams, the Lib Dems allege, deceived voters by claiming she had lived near Oldham for 25 years (when apparently last year she was in fact living closer to Halifax).

But, regardless, the allegations against Abrahams are a drop in the ocean compared to those which brought Woolas down. Woolas’s leaflets not only lost him his seat, but got him barred from holding public office for three years and suspended from the Labour party, not just because of their racially inflammatory content and the connections they implied between his opponent and violent extremists but because the evidence showed that he knew these allegations were false. Woolas, the court heard, had deliberately tried to “make the white folk angry” with his materials.

So this time round – and with the major parties steering clear of the race issue – it will be interesting to see how the BNP fare in the election. It may be that they make some small gains. Racial tensions in Oldham are particularly well documented – the race riots in 2001, for example – and in the past the far-right party have received a reasonable portion of the vote. In 2001, for instance, they came fourth with 11%, while Labour won that year with 38%.

The BNP’s candidate for this by-election, Derek Adams, was at the weekend removed by police from a hustings event after staging a sit down protest, which seemed to spur on several BNP supporters (if comments on their website are anything to go by). The BNP described the incident as “the day democracy died in Oldham”, though the community group responsible for hosting the hustings presented an altogether alternative account of events, saying Adams had essentially gatecrashed the proceedings.

Other entertaining candidates of note running in this by-election include: David Bishop of the Bus-Pass Elvis party (key pledge: “[We will] call on ITV and the BBC to scrap Coronation Street and Eastenders because they are depressing voters with their gloomy plots and constant whinging”); The Flying Brick of the Monster Raving Loony Party (key pledge: “If elected I would seek to introduce soft furnishings to the 'Elections' reception in the Oldham Civic Centre”); and Loz Kaye of the semi-serious Pirate Party of the United Kingdom (key pledge: “We will legalise use of copyright works where no money changes hands, which will give the public new rights"). The full list of candidates can be found here.

Whoever wins – and my money is on a narrow Labour victory – it will be interesting to assess the wider implications of the result. Both Ed Miliband and Nick Clegg are desperately craving an intravenous injection of political capital at present, and rest assured that come the early hours of Friday morning, one of them will get it . . .

I will be attending the count late tonight (Thursday) from 10pm until the result is announced at around 1am. I have – finally – set up a Twitter account, and plan to send updates all evening. If you are night owl, follow me for reports on the action as it unfolds.

This article originally appeared at: http://www.opendemocracy.net/ourkingdom/ryan-gallagher/oldham-by-election-coalitions-first-test

Obama and Wikileaks

Tuesday, 11 January 2011

It was more or less confirmed on Saturday that a secret grand jury has been assembled in America to consider espionage charges against Wikileaks co-founder Julian Assange. Last month a subpoena was issued to Twitter by a court in the state of Virginia, under section 2703(d) of the Patriot Act, demanding the website hand over account details of individuals associated with the organisation. The court, it appears, is attempting to establish evidence that Assange colluded with the young man allegedly responsible for leaking thousands of classified U.S. government files, Bradley Manning.

The U.S. could not successfully prosecute Assange merely as the publisher of the documents (though some members of congress want to amend legislation so they can do so in the future). But if they can prove Assange – or others involved with Wikileaks – conspired with Manning to obtain and release them, then lawyers believe the prosecution could have a case.

The most striking thing about the U.S. attempt to prosecute Assange is the intense fervor with which the Obama administration is scheming to bring him down. They are exerting a serious, time consuming, money draining campaign to castigate him – and some of his colleagues – by any possible means. Only three years ago Obama was elected under the banner of ‘change’. Yet here he is, mobilising George W. Bush’s Patriot Act in an attempt to imprison a man who is merely practicing principles Obama has himself repeatedly preached.

At a speech delivered in September of last year, for instance, Obama puffed out his chest and said with great conviction:

The arc of human progress has been shaped by individuals with the freedom to assemble; by organizations outside of government that insisted upon democratic change; and by free media that held the powerful accountable.

[...] experience shows us that history is on the side of liberty – that the strongest foundation for human progress lies in open economies, open societies, and open governments. To put it simply: democracy, more than any other form of government, delivers for our citizens.

[...] Open society supports open government, but cannot substitute for it. There is no right more fundamental than the ability to choose your leaders and determine your destiny. Make no mistake: the ultimate success of democracy in the world won’t come because the United States dictates it; it will come because individual citizens demand a say in how they are governed.

The speech was a good one, full of fist-pumping, high-minded talk about the ‘free internet’, ‘open government’, 'liberty' and ‘democracy’. As it reached its conclusion, Obama gained a rapturous applause. Yet again he had illustrated his wonderful and emotive oratory skills.

But when the emotion of the moment subsided, when calm resumed, his words remained mere words. The uncomfortable truth is that three years since his election as the saviour of America, in many ways Obama has only talked the talk – he has not walked the walk.

If the president claims to be a true advocate of open government, liberty and democracy, then serious questions must be asked of his integrity. 23-year-old Bradley Manning has been in solitary confinement in a Virginia prison for five months without so much as a preliminary hearing, a secret grand jury appears to be meticulously gathering evidence in an attempt to prosecute Julian Assange . . . while it has now come to the stage that American journalists are hesitant to support Wikileaks for fear of a government reprimand. All of this has taken place on Obama’s watch. Certainly a strange picture of ‘liberty’.

With his Wikileaks response, Obama has proven himself – although not as the redeemer of the American Dream, or as a great proponent of ‘change’. Instead he has proven that power has eroded his values, and that he has allowed himself to become a victim of an American political system that appears to be both diseased and contagious. As Commander and Chief it may be unrealistic to expect Obama to have embraced the actions of Wikileaks with open arms; however, this does not mean the only option for him was to bring down the iron fist.

If only, somehow, Obama could be made to live up to all his grand rhetoric – rhetoric that made people around the world believe he really was different. Like on January 20th 2009, at the rousing conclusion of his inauguration speech in Washington, when he took a moment to look out towards the future. “Let it be said by our children's children,” he said, “that when we were tested we refused to let this journey end, that we did not turn back nor did we falter”.

Now almost two years to the day since that historic speech, Obama has both turned back and faltered. At this particular juncture, history will remember him as the man who had ideals – but then let them slip. Perhaps we are naive to have expected anything else . . . As the Obama administration’s handling of the Wikileaks saga has in recent months illustrated, ‘change we can believe in’ was just a slogan, after all.

This article appeared originally at: http://www.opendemocracy.net/ryan-gallagher/secret-grand-jury-against-assange-is-not-change-we-can-believe-in