Oldham East and Saddleworth
Lewis Baston gives his rundown of this by-election seat, noting that Debbie Abrahams is likely to win, but that this is ‘not natural Labour territory’ and that there is a strong, historical Liberal tradition going back decades…
Perhaps the first thing one should note about Oldham East and Saddleworth is that it is not ‘natural Labour territory’. Since the constituency was created in 1997, Labour has never achieved more than 42 per cent of the vote. While part of it is as gritty an urban area as you could find, most of the constituency is suburban and rural. It is on the edge of the Greater Manchester conurbation and many of the Saddleworth villages are scenic, attractive places which attract retirees and some wealthy Manchester or Leeds commuters. This is post-industrial countryside, and even in the town centre the air blows fresh and cold and one can feel the moors gradually reclaiming their territory from the depopulating town after 150 years.
The seat divides into four broad areas:
• Oldham inner urban, comprising basically two wards (Alexandra and St Mary’s).
• Oldham eastern suburbs (St James, Waterhead)
• The small town of Shaw to the north of Oldham (Crompton, Shaw)
• Moorlands and valley villages in the Pennine hills east of Oldham (Saddleworth North, Saddleworth South, Saddleworth West and Lees – the last-named ward is a bit more urban)
Politically, two of these elements are heavily Lib Dem with the Conservatives a distant second (at least in local elections) – Saddleworth and Shaw. In the other two it is competitive between Lib Dem and Labour. Crucially, Labour has tended to do better in general elections than local elections – despite the bad relations between the parties, some voters clearly ‘split their ticket’ for Lib Dem locally and Labour nationally.
This is not a particularly Muslim seat, except for the two inner urban wards (particularly St Mary’s, which is 48.7 per cent BME population and over 40 per cent Muslim). The Saddleworth wards are below the English average for ethnic minority population. Muslim campaigners clearly dislike Phil Woolas, although it is far from clear that this reflects his Muslim constituents’ views.
Much of the constituency was previously in the Littleborough and Saddleworth seat which was Conservative from its creation in 1983 until a famous 1995 by-election when for the first time in recent years Labour (candidate Phil Woolas) ran to the right of the Lib Dems, calling their candidate Chris Davies ‘soft on drugs and high on taxes’. The Lib Dems won the by-election with Labour in second place, but Labour won the redrawn constituency of Oldham East & Saddleworth following boundary changes in 1997. Election campaigning in the area since 1995 has been rough, but even before then there was little love lost between Liberal and Labour. Parts of the seat were in Colne Valley before 1983, which was a nearly unique Lib-Lab marginal in the 1960s and which saw one of the first socialist challenges to the Liberals in a 1907 by-election.
All in all, this is a seat where coalition Liberalism can put up a serious challenge to Labour because rightwing Liberalism has local roots and the Conservative party is organisationally weak despite the impressive share of the vote won by their candidate Kashif Ali in May 2010. There seems little doubt that the basic dynamic of the by-election is the Liberal Democrat effort to recruit enough Tories to offset the loss of disillusioned centre-left voters to Labour. Even among the traditionally anti-Labour Lib Dems of the Pennines there has been unease about the national coalition’s policies, which led to a mass defection of seven Lib Dems to Independent which handed Labour minority control of neighbouring Rochdale.
Even though a look at the national poll ratings and the change since May indicates that there has been a large swing from Lib Dem to Labour, it is worth remembering that Labour has never approached a majority of the vote in the seat, and if the Lib Dems can gain the bulk of the centre-right voters in the seat they can win, even if the Labour vote bounces up to 1997-2005 levels. Some of their leaflets are even coloured Tory blue rather than the traditional Lib Dem yellow.
The winter campaign has also been a potential problem for Labour. The Lib Dem strategy is clear from their decision to move the writ for the by-election to take place on 13 January – a breach of a long-standing parliamentary tradition by which the party who previously held the seat sets the date and moves the writ. The early date is mostly about denying campaigning time to Labour’s candidate Debbie Abrahams and keeping the advantage Elwyn Watkins has from name recognition, from his previous campaigning in the seat and publicity over the election court case. However, Oldham has been flooded by astonishing numbers of Labour activists from all over the country, and there can be few voters in the seat who have not been exposed to Labour’s message.
There was a surge in support for the BNP in the 2001 election after riots in Oldham, and the party’s vote at 5.7 per cent was relatively high even in 2010. Because BNP supporters tend to go and vote, there is a chance that their vote share will be higher in a low-turnout, winter by-election.
There are still some imponderable factors about the local response to some of the circumstances. While having had the previous MP thrown out of office for his campaign via the election court is not good news for Labour, being the complainant may not help Watkins much either. In the previous re-run election (Winchester, 1997, on grounds that votes had been wrongly disallowed by the returning officer) the candidate who brought the legal action saw the majority against him go up from two to over 20,000. Some voters have taken the view that Watkins has ‘whinged’ or been a bad loser by going to law.
The form book would suggest a Labour hold with perhaps 40-42 per cent, Lib Dem second with the 32 per cent, or so they seem to get in most elections here, and Conservatives back down to around 18-20 per cent. The two polls by known organisations on the final weekend of the campaign suggested that Labour were riding a bit higher with 44-46 per cent. A certain amount will depend on who has the most efficient postal voting operation, particularly if the weather is bad on Thursday.
If, as the polls suggest, Debbie Abrahams is on course to win comfortably on Thursday, the accomplishment is not to be underestimated. This is not an easy seat for Labour at the best of times, and having the previous MP thrown out by a court does not make this the best of times.