Analysis: Woolas’ demise was hard, but not impossible, to spot

Even with the benefit of hindsight it was impossible to tell, as I travelled around Oldham East and Saddleworth with Phil Woolas and Elwyn Watkins, what lay ahead. But the clues were there.

By Alex Stevenson

The first inklings of tension came on Sunday April 25th, when Woolas and Watkins clashed in a hustings event in Saddleworth Civil Hall – the same venue in which the five-day hearing was heard.

The two high court judges would subsequently conclude that Labour leaflets were misrepresentative when it came to how ‘local’ the Liberal Democrats’ Watkins was. Referring to one of Saddleworth’s villages, Watkins told constituents: “I believe you need at least three generations to be a proper Delphonian, but at least I’ve – ah – made a start.” The audience’s reaction, I wrote, was ‘unclear’.

Woolas, meanwhile, was going down a storm. “I’m always proud to be called a professional politician,” he said. “I wouldn’t want an amateur one.” Watkins didn’t look at all happy as a murmur of approval rippled around the room. The jibe didn’t go unnoticed.

Locals say Watkins lost the May 6th election that day. His performance was heavy-handed and laboured. He appeared uncomfortable and out of sorts. Saddleworth is the well-off half of this constituency and those attending the hustings should have been flocking to the Lib Dems in their droves. Afterwards, some had changed their minds.

The following day I began to understand why this was the case. In the afternoon I met up with Watkins, who I shared a pint with in a village called Shaw. He was clearly overwrought, shaking his head repeatedly, flustered and breathless. “It’s been terrible,” he said, as he drove me to the day’s leafleting destination. Of all the candidates I met during the general election campaign, Watkins most resembled a drowning man.

Woolas, by contrast, was much calmer. He frankly admitted that he didn’t know which way the result was going to go. In the end he won by 103 votes, a desperately narrow margin which makes Oldham East and Saddleworth one of the supermarginals at the next general election. Scratch that – at the upcoming by-election, of course.

As we walked around the Holts housing estate, a deprived area on the outskirts of Oldham, his strikingly blunt manner shone through. Nowhere was this the case than when it came to the seat’s famous racial tensions. “We haven’t done anything to address it,” he admitted.

Locals say the situation has improved in the decade which has passed since the Oldham race riots – and many give Woolas some of the credit for that. The importance of racial politics to the constituency’s dynamics remained critical in 2010, however. The Conservative candidate, Kashif Ali, was thought to have removed well over a quarter of Woolas’ votes in the Asian community. Perhaps this was why Woolas’ literature tried so hard to link Watkins to Muslim extremists. It backfired, as we learned today.

Now Watkins must muster up the strength to fight a second campaign within 12 months – in a political climate much harder for the Lib Dems than it was back in May. The grim look on his face as he told me of Labour’s allegations is hard to forget. “It’s a very dirty campaign Labour fight when they’re losing,” he told me. What did he mean by that, I asked? “Get the muckspreaders out.”

On every issue, big or small, Woolas and Watkins would sneer or splutter in turn whenever I told them of the other’s claims. The Holts estate was a typical example – Woolas claimed the Lib Dems had abandoned its residents, but Watkins said the Lib Dem council had helped turn it around. “For him to claim credit for that – I’m almost speechless,” Watkins said despairingly. This was, by itself, not that unusual. When added to the greater extremes taking place elsewhere on the campaign trail, though, even the slightest attack seemed to have a disproportionate impact on the challenger.

All marginals are close and difficult to predict, but the perfect storm of two sides’ acrimony and voters’ failure to pick a clear winner made this one of the most compelling. With Woolas launching a judicial review against today’s verdict that struggle, even now, is not quite over. The bitter taste will not have faded by the time the second round of campaigning begins.