Oldham by-election: the Coalition's first test

Tomorrow, the Oldham and Saddleworth by-election will test the Coalition at the ballot boxes for the first time. Ryan Gallagher lays out the electoral landscape in a constituency with a history of foul play and racial tension.
Ryan Gallagher
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.

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