Oldham East and Saddleworth: Why Labour won

All the big question-marks of this complex little campaign helped Labour rack up a 3,558 majority.

By Alex Stevenson

It could have been very different. In an extraordinarily diverse seat, ranging from the well-off middle classes of Saddleworth to the grim deprivation of Oldham, so many factors were in play. Even without the added complications of Phil Woolas’ disgrace and the coalition this would have been complex. In the event, all the major unknowns went Labour’s way. Here’s how the nuts and bolts of the Oldham East and Saddleworth by-election produced an impressive win for Ed Miliband’s Labour.

Turnout

This was the key unknown of the by-election. For a start, it got dark at half-past four; that doesn’t usually happen on polling days. That followed a gloomy, miserable sort of January day, typical for the area. Low cloud clinging to the moors, light drizzle, a chilly wind blowing the Lib Dems in particular no good. There wasn’t snow, as there often is now – but nor was there sun. In the event the final figure of 48.06% was above early indications. It was not a bad decline from the 61.2% seen in the general election. And that was good news for Labour, especially in the evening when the winning party’s vote surged.

The Woolas factor

In the wake of the expenses scandal, we asked ourselves, how low could politicians’ reputations go? Phil Woolas showed us the way, producing election literature last May so below the belt his misrepresentations cost him his career. There must have been a huge backlash, we wondered.

But it wasn’t nearly as big as many Labour campaigners feared. Local voters seemed to be much more forgiving of their last MP than the media, or the high court judges who decided his fate. The strong personal following he had developed over the years had created a loyalty which seemed to offset the damage done. This might explain why the eventual result was quite so one-sided.

The Asian vote

Before the campaign the Asian vote was taken very seriously indeed, but it never quite materialised as a threat to Labour. This seat’s Muslim communities are mainly found in the deprived parts of Oldham East, where a complicated little political dynamic was playing out. The Conservatives’ decision to pick Kashif Ali had already produced a surprise result, boosting the Tories’ third place presence from 17.8% in 2005 to 26.4% in 2010. Woolas’ campaign team reckoned he lost around three-quarters of the votes taken by Ali, compared to a quarter from the Lib Dems.

But many ethnically Asian voters could not bring themselves to vote Tory. In the end, the Asian proportion of the electorate – just nine per cent, after all – did not prove a complicating factor.

The coalition

By contrast this was always going to be a big vote-loser for the Lib Dems, whose strong by-election record in the last decade or so has been grounded in their opposition status. Tuition fees was a big issue, but it was overshadowed by anxieties over the limited availability of jobs, especially in Oldham. The VAT hike was particularly poorly timed for this campaign and became a keystone of Labour rhetoric against the coalition’s “broken promises”.

Having a partner in government may have helped the Lib Dems in some ways: though the Tory campaign on the ground denied it, stories dominated the national press about the limited extent of David Cameron’s support for his own man on the ballot paper. It did not change the result, though. Instead the balance is on the other side of the ledger.

Who decided the election?

Tribal loyalties shored up many votes, but these were at their weakest in the affluent Saddleworth half of the seat. Here, well-off public sector types oozing middle class in picturesque villages spend much of their time wavering between orange and red. Saddleworth used to be Tory but the party stopped campaigning there following boundary changes in the 1990s. Now those on the ground say tactical voting is key. That’s why the election literature sought to play up the prospects of a three-horse race (Labour, the Conservatives) or vehemently emphasise the close 103-margin at the top (Lib Dems).

Despite this complicated mix of factors coming together to create the result we’ve got, it’s possible to distil some meaning at the national level from the final scores.

Labour have good reason to be delighted. This was the sort of majority they can be proud of, enough to shake off growing concerns in some quarters about their new leader. Ed Miliband will be thoroughly relieved by this result.

And then there’s the Lib Dems. Clegg knows, like any party leader, that the significance of by-elections far outweighs the advantage of one extra MP voting in the division lobbies on your side. This one comes after the following narrative series: tuition fees (terrible for the Lib Dems); Cable threatening his “nuclear option” (disastrous for the Lib Dems); VAT hike (bad for the coalition – but especially the Lib Dems). It’s a run of humiliations which Clegg will have been desperate to stop.

His failure to do so was predictable, but unfortunate. If the coalition government is to collapse, it will do so because of a withdrawal of support from the Lib Dem grassroots, not from its leadership. The failure to win Oldham East and Saddleworth may become viewed by history as yet another step towards that end. Clegg is already focusing on 2015; he’ll be hoping his party’s activists are, too.