Today voters in the UK’s parliamentary constituency of Oldham East & Saddleworth will trudge back to the polls for a redo of their regularly scheduled poll in last May’s general election. The by-election marks the first electoral test of the UK’s governing Conservative-Liberal Democrat coalition. British pundits are eager for the results, which many foresee will indicate an unambiguous rejection of the coalition’s bold program of restoring fiscal stability by slashing public spending.
With the coalition parties’ standings in the opinion polls taking a hit thanks to the unpopular but necessary cuts they’ve made in the UK’s bloated social and military spending - the coalition’s junior partner, the LibDems, have borne the brunt of it, drubbed back into historically low single digits - this by-election is unwelcome.
Party leaders David Cameron (the Conservative Prime Minister) and Nick Clegg (his LibDem deputy) are not looking forward to having to face Oldham East’s fickle electorate at this sensitive juncture, before the long term fiscal benefits of the spending cuts kick in, especially because the by-election has been called under rather dubious precepts. The LibDems came up a mere 103 votes short of gaining the seat in from Labour in May. Foreshadowing the debate raging in the U.S., post-Tuscon tragedy, over “heated rhetoric,” the LibDems whined about the incumbent Labour MP’s malignant campaign rhetoric to an electoral panel and the judges who ordered a “re-run.” The judges concurred with the LibDems’ claim that Labour leaflets’ “false claims” that the liberals were “pandering” to militant Muslims in the ranks of local immigrants has swayed enough voters to spoil the results.
Across the Pond, these electoral interregnum skirmishes excite political junkies (the Brits prefer the more high-minded sounding moniker “psephologists”) because of the electoral peculiarities that often result from by-elections. By-election voters can register protests on local as well as national matters, and they are not as timid to vote for minor parties - with sometimes out of the mainstream platforms - as they might be in a general election. This splintering of the overall vote can obscure the real message that a by-election electorate is trying to send, if any. Pundits, though, tend to draw broad conclusions by which party comes in first place and captures the seat, no matter how far under 50% the plurality the winner manages to draw.
The constituency of Oldham East & Saddleworth is one of those psephologist’s wet dreams. The seat is made up of divergent elements, a mix of rural Britain and urban ills of the England’s industrial North, with a growing South Asian Muslim population. Once solid Conservative territory, its earlier incarnation was grabbed by the LibDems in a 1995 by-election, and then Labour claimed in their 1997 landslide. The LibDems have gone all out to snatch the seat back since. In last May’s Conservative resurgence, the Tories climbed back within striking distance, placing a strong third. Cameron was late to swing behind the Tory candidate, seeming to be rooting for his partners’ LibDem candidate, perhaps assuming it would be a two-horse race. Grassroots Tories were dismayed, because 2010’s results convinced them they had a shot here after so many years of being out of serious contention.
Oldham East has seen its share of ugly campaign innuendo in the hard fought Labour-LibDem contests since the mid-1990s. The ejected MP, Phil Woolas, gained the seat for Labour at the 1997 general election by scaring Oldham’s socially conservative voters that the by-election victorious Liberal MP was “soft on drugs.”
Exacerbating that agitated electoral environment, in 2001 Oldham was Oldham has hit by ugly race riots and a subsequent stark spike in the vote for the xenophobic British National Party. (The BNP vote culminated in an unexpected 11% here in 2001, and 16.4% in next door Oldham West & Royton, but has remained strong since.)
So, what can happen here?
If Labour wins, despite being tarred by its local party’s questionable campaign tactics, pundits will read that voters could swallow that ill humor in order to stick it the coalition.
If the LibDems eke one out, Nick Clegg will be able to enjoy a respite from the political obituaries for his scrappy third party that opinion pages in both broadsheets and tabloids have been churning out for months. Tory PM Cameron will try to talk down his party’s result and chalk it up for the entire coalition.
Both Labourites and left of center LibDem voters have a tempting protest vessel in a Green candidate. The enviro party is assumed to be a squeaky clean alternative lefty option - attractive after years of rancorous Lib-Lab battles - and has been enjoying growing electoral success in recent years.
If the Tory vote tanks, it may be because they shift in droves to bolster the coalition via voting LibDem, or their grassroots - who are only slightly more enthused about the coalition than the LibDems cantankerous rank and file - could abandon them for their favoritite by-election protest vehicle, the Euroskeptic UK Independence Party.
The BNP is making a big push here. If they gain disaffected Tory votes, it may signal working class Conservatives are unreceptive to the classical liberal sentiments that Nick Clegg and his market oriented LibDem cohorts claim to have “awakened” in the Tory backbenches. Or maybe they just won’t vote for a Conservative candidate with a foreign-sounding name. Hostile pundits will no doubt paint it like this, but few will concede that many BNP voters are pulled by previous Labour stalwarts in Oldham’s urban white working class precincts.
Polls close soon. We will return to analyze the results - and the pundits’ interpretations - in a post here soon after.