Saturday, 5 December 2015

The Complexity of the Oldham By-Election

Labour didn't just win the Oldham by-election. We smashed it. Contrary to all expectations, the narrow win some expected (or, indeed, had hoped for) was surpassed by a very healthy majority and a significant increase in the proportion of the vote won. As a safe seat, UKIP should never have been in contention anyway so it was great news for the leadership that the first "proper" electoral test it has faced saw it become that little bit safer. So congratulations to all involved.

Now begins the tussle over why Labour's victory was so emphatic. It was Jez wot won it. Or was it Jim McMahon? Did Labour trounce all-comers because the campaign concentrated on local issues? Did an electorate used to returning a long-serving left wing MP prove unfazed by the red-baiting, Trot-bashing nonsense of UKIP and their media helpers? Or was the context in which the by-election took place coax out the fantastic result? The complex and messy truth is that all these things mattered. The question is whether it's a blip peculiar to a nominally safe, northern seat; or whether there's some generalisations that could apply to future by-elections elsewhere.

Let's start with Jim. I don't know the fella, but I've heard stuff about him for a long time. He was admired/loathed in local government circles for implementing a compulsory training system for Oldham councillors which he linked to allowances. When you look at the calibre of incompetents and fools we have here in Stoke for instance, you can see why such a thing is admired and feared. Jim was also one of the first Labour councils to be designated a co-operative council. This initiative was an attempt to embed the principles of the cooperative movement into the running and delivering of public services. Unfortunately, because of the ruinous cuts visited upon local government by the Tories, it has been preoccupied with finding alternative delivery models for those services and, unsurprisingly, has proved something of a mixed bag across the country. Still, Jim enjoys some name recognition in his patch, hails from the same working class stock as the majority of the constituency's residents, and knows about the problems and the lives of the people he now represents in Westminster. Lesson to be drawn by the party? Local candidates with local roots have greater pull than parachutists.

Yet it can't all be put on Jim. He was an asset to be sure, but there were other movements in Labour's favour. The first of these is to the detriment of UKIP. As the catch-all protest party, UKIP profited from a - for them - benign media environment. Having cornered the anti-EU market, they opportunistically fished from the anti-equal marriage cesspool, and quickly usurped immigration as their own. As the latter is the obsession of choice of all the right wing press and, as such, a permanent staple in the broadcast media UKIP thrived. Well, things have changed. The Labour leadership campaign hogged the media during the summer while Europe saw its worse refugee crisis since the war. UKIP should have made hay, but politics and the media were indisposed. The result was a shrinking profile and therefore a declining purchase among the electorate. This in mind, despite various folk talking up UKIP's chances of taking the seat their dependence on friendly coverage meant they came nowhere. They remain the protest vote of choice, but without the assistance of friends in the newsrooms they're doomed to flounder and complain about postal voting.

About that media. It's fair to say last month was certainly the worst press Labour has had since at least the early 1980s. I can't honestly remember the party getting a rougher ride. The shoot-to-kill comments - blown out of proportion and context. The allowing of the Tories to portray us as the party of insecurity, and of course Hilary Benn making a better case for war than the Prime Minister against his own leader. Just absolutely bloody awful. As we know, divided parties don't win elections yet, well, it's almost as if the good people of Oldham thumbed their nose at so-called educated opinion - mine included. As Jeremy was plastered all over UKIP's material and the press having a good go of making him responsible for Dave's war, to the point of reducing military action to the internal shenanigans of the PLP, you cannot say Jeremy was not a factor in the election. Had the result been close, you can bet his opponents would have had a field day. But no, none of the bile, division, and appalling headlines cut through. Why?

I don't think it's got much to do with planting a left flag and finding that the electorate comes flocking. Rather, I think the media obsession with Jeremy has become so saturated, the attacks more ludicrous and - yes - desperate-sounding that voters are tuning out. Far from being brainwashed dupes, they are seeing through the bullshit and making up their own minds. For Labour loyal people, which if they're white are too often dismissed as racists and xenophobes by our 'in-touch' media and politicians, the stuff written about and talked about is so much Westminster froth. Some are not paying attention, and others might have got it into their heads that Jeremy is "old Labour" and therefore a palatable successor to His Blairness. In addition, Labour might be scooping up a few anti-politics votes too. When the whole political establishment is ganging up against an insurgent politician, there are plenty of voters bloody-minded enough to put a plus where they place a minus.

Making generalisations on the basis of one contest is foolish, but there are pointers for us to look for at the next by-election, wherever that is. We might be onto something if a) UKIP continue to be relatively weak. b) Hostile coverage of Corbyn has no discernible impact on the vote. c) The votes for protest parties appear to transfer to Labour in significant numbers. Carrying on in this vein might suggest the position of the party vis a vis the electorate isn't as bad as a lot of people think. Time will tell.


Speedy said...

It's certainly interesting, given national polling. Maybe the 11000 majority did not consist of the same people as before - the working class voters did not bother voting, but the ex liberals and greens did?

Or maybe not.

Horza said...

With a 40% turnout there is a lot of wriggle room for interpretation on that front

Phil said...

Well, the GE figures (rounded a bit) were
Labour 23600
UKIP 8900
Tory 8100
LD 1600
Green 800
Turnout 60%

This time round it was
Labour 17200 -27%
UKIP 6500 -27%
Tory 2600 -68%
LD 1000 -37%
Green 200 -75%
Turnout 40% (-33%)

So there doesn't appear to have been that much movement between the blocs - except perhaps from the Tories to UKIP. Odd the way that nobody's talking about the collapse in the Tory vote, eh?

I actually think Stephen Bush, of all people, may have nailed it. While I've got deep reservations about his pre-election article in the NS, his post-election article isn't bad - this point in particular:

it could be that Labour’s North West operation simply used its activists very well – if your activists are spending a lot of time talking to firm Labour promises before the final days, they may be missing out on persuadable voters.
It may be that the reason why so many Labour members left Oldham convinced it would be tricky is because the campaign team sent them to exactly where they wanted them to go, meaning that on the day itself, they could be confident of only talking to cast-iron Labour voters.

In other words, it was the campaigners who won it - not so much by changing people's minds on policy as by being there, a constant reminder that there was an election coming up, and that Labour and Jim McMahon were a party and a candidate they might consider voting for.

And - although Stephen Bush obviously doesn't make this connection - we know why the local Labour Party had so many campaigners at its disposal, don't we, boys and girls?

BCFG said...

If speedy ever bothered to visit a northern working class town he would see that the UKIP and Tory posters are invariably in the windows of the minority Middle class residents of the town. The fact is that speedy lives in a fantasy world where the Middle class are all voting socialist and the working class are all voting for whichever party wants to bash the dark skinned people the most.

As the evidence showed in the labour leadership election, Corbyn's support came from the working classes while Middle class people were more inclined to vote for the assortment of neo- liberal war mongers who speedy would love to have seen triumph, and who Phil BC actively campaigned for it should be reiterated.

Despite all the evidence to the contrary speedy continues to peddle the myth that Corbyn's success is built on a groundswell of middle class do gooders. he does this because like most on the far right he imagines and hopes the working class can't think beyond hammering immigrants. speedy believes do gooders are always Middle class because he can't imagine a working class do gooder! Such his is disdain for hard working people.

david walsh said...

I know you do local results, but here is one on the same day as Oldham in a working class bit of East London which seems equally interesting,

Newham LBC – Boleyn

Labour 1,440 (72.1 per cent, +7.9 on 2014), Lib Dems 181 (9.1 per cent, +9.1), Conservatives 171 (8.6 per cent, -12.4), Green Party 117 (5.9 per cent, +5.9), UKIP 78 (3.9 per cent, +3.9), Independent 10 (o.5 per cent, +0.5)

Labour hold

Dave Cohen said...

Phil do you think Farage's complete indifference to the unfairness of May's results to Ukip is sending out a subliminal message to potential swing voters that they are not remotely interested in democracy? I wonder if this is having any effect.

Anonymous said...

"the collapse of the Tory vote"

Is it still way too early, or just reading too much into one local election, but do you think that over the next 4 or 5 years, electoral politics in the UK will become more of a contest between Labour and UKIP, rather than the Tories?


Phil said...

True Les, but the observation follows the by-elections of by-elections since 2012. I'm not saying UKIP are going to replace the Tories, but in contests in so-called Labour areas there's a possibility they could become the second party of choice.