Paul Anderson, Tribune column, 21 January 2011
It’s an old adage of political journalism that it’s a mistake to read too much into a single by-election result, and Oldham East and Saddleworth last week is no exception.
Indeed, you could argue that it’s not very significant at all. Oldham East and Saddleworth is a very unusual constituency, one of a handful of Labour-Liberal Democrat marginals, and the circumstances of the by-election were odd in the extreme – the nullification of the general election victory won only eight months ago by Labour’s Phil Woolas, and Woolas’s disqualification from parliament on the grounds that he had untruthfully claimed that his Lib Dem opponent, Elwyn Watkins, had sought the support of Islamist extremists in his campaign. Unless there is a spate of by-elections following convictions of sitting Labour MPs for fiddling expenses, Labour isn’t going to have to fight many fights in conditions remotely similar.
Add the likelihood that nearly all constituency boundaries will be redrawn as a consequence of the coalition’s plans to reduce the size of the House of Commons and the possibility that the next general election will take place under a different electoral system, and Debbie Abrahams’s victory for Labour last week looks in certain lights to be very small potatoes.
But it’s not completely insignificant. It is, most importantly, a win for Labour under Ed Miliband at a time when – how to put it politely? – he has yet to establish a commanding presence on the political stage. If Labour had lost, his leadership would now be being lampooned widely, and not just by the usual suspects in Labour’s ranks who still haven’t got over his beating his brother last September. As it is, he has a little more breathing space.
Oldham East and Saddleworth also provides a fascinating snapshot of how voters’ allegiances have shifted in the eight months since the Tory-Lib Dem coalition government was formed. Labour won essentially because it attracted thousands of votes from people who had voted Lib Dem at the general election. The Lib Dem share of the vote held up, but only because thousands who had voted Tory in May 2010 switched tactically to the Lib Dem to keep Labour out.
This pattern of Lib Dems defecting to Labour and of Tories tactically voting Lib Dem was good news for Labour last week – but it need not always be so. If anti-Labour tactical voting becomes the norm in other Labour-Lib Dem marginals, it’s quite possible that Tories tactically voting Lib Dem will outweigh Lib Dems defecting to Labour, with very bad results for Labour. It would be even worse if Lib Dem supporters opt to vote tactically for Tories to keep Labour out in Labour-Tory marginals.
And that’s on the assumption that the electoral system remains the same. If it is changed to the alternative vote, as will happen if voters vote yes in the forthcoming referendum on the electoral system … well, the message for Labour from Oldham East and Saddleworth is not at all reassuring.
Under AV, single-member constituencies are retained, but voters mark their preferences on their ballot papers by ranking the candidates (“1, 2, 3, 4 …”) rather than choosing one (“X”). If no candidate wins more than 50 per cent of first preferences, the second preferences of the last placed candidate are redistributed, and so on until one candidate has more than 50 per cent.
Now, no one can do more than guess how preferences would have stacked up under AV in Oldham East and Saddleworth. But the scale of Tory tactical voting for the Lib Dem suggests that he would have picked up many, many more second preferences than the Labour candidate from the 13 per cent of voters who voted Tory last week. And it’s by no means an outrageous conjecture that the Lib Dem would also have picked up an overwhelming majority of second (or third or fourth) preferences from the 11 per cent who voted UKIP or the BNP. I know it’s only a parlour game, but on this scenario I think that Labour would have lost narrowly last week.
Party self-interest is not of course what should count in choosing an electoral system – but in reality it will count a great deal come the AV referendum. Oldham East and Saddleworth is a warning to those Labour supporters of AV who have blithely assumed, on the basis of the experience of anti-Tory tactical voting in the four general elections before 2010, that Labour would benefit from a switch to AV. If anti-Labour feeling is widespread among voters, it could lose even more comprehensively under AV than under first-past-the-post.
That’s not my principal, principled reason for voting “no” in the referendum. But it’s a reason all the same, and it’s related to the principal, principled reason – of which more anon.