The Oldham East and Saddleworth by-election was pretty good for Labour, better than it might have been for the Lib Dems and not very good for the Tories. Labour’s vote was up 10 per cent, which is more or less exactly the figure represented by the national polls. It probably represents a flow of ex-Lib Dem voters who went to Labour as soon as the coalition was formed. But the result tells us less about the composition of the coalition vote. Anecdotal evidence suggests that the Lib Dem vote was bolstered by tactical Tory voting – Tories who took their cue from a prime minister worried that the Lib Dem vote would collapse. It is less likely, though not impossible, that the same thing would happen in a general election. In any case, the Lib Dem vote in any by-election is usually not representative of the Lib Dem vote in a general election.
The politics of the by-election, however, point to the coalition’s longer-term problems. It is now very difficult to see what its future might be. The Lib Dems insist they will fight the next election as an independent party even though, presumably, they will fight it as part of a coalition. But can they then have a programme that differs significantly from their coalition bedfellows’? Will they promise to renew the coalition before the election? Are they open to an offer from Labour? And how far will they acknowledge ‘ownership’ of the government’s record? Furthermore, how far will Lib Dem backbenchers accept ‘ownership’, since many of them are clearly much less happy with that record than the 18 Lib Dem ministers are? Whether the next election is fought under AV or not must also influence Lib Dem tactics. AV would give them some freedom of manoeuvre. How they would cope if the referendum were to go against them is, again, largely guesswork.
The by-election result also raises difficulties for David Cameron, though his are less life-threatening than the Lib Dems’. Cameron is now committed to the coalition and seems to think it is necessary for the Tory Party. But he also has to make up his mind what happens to it as the present parliament nears its end. Does he fight the subsequent election as a coalition, does he negotiate another arrangement with the Lib Dems, and how acceptable would that be to Tory right-wingers if it appears the Tories can win on their own? Cameron may even now have his own views on that, but it is almost impossible for him to say what they are. That’s why the Oldham result is awkward for him: not because the Tory vote slumped, but because the Tories may find themselves perpetually propping up the Lib Dems by a series of electoral nudges and winks, the only alternative to which, electoral reform, Cameron cannot promote.
In retrospect it is clear that the negotiations that led to the coalition were far too brief. At the time people congratulated themselves on the speed with which things were done here compared to the apparently endless discussions that precede (or do not precede) the formation of coalitions on the Continent. But the difference is that on the Continent all future policy is considered. Here, in the rush to conclude an agreement, nothing substantial was. Although – a straw in the wind – Nick Clegg said during the election campaign that there would need to be ‘savage cuts’, I doubt that backbench Lib Dem MPs had any real idea what was in train. Their silence over the plans for the NHS or for education or for public spending cuts is extraordinary; their defence of these policies, when they do defend them, often simply embarrassing. My guess is that one reason for the speed with which policy is now being implemented, its very recklessness, is an advantage for the Conservatives. It hardly leaves Lib Dem backbenchers time to breathe. They find themselves committed willy-nilly. Any more reasoned process, because more lengthy, actually risks the unity of the coalition. If, however, this is the pattern of coalition politics then we are in for permanent revolution.
As for Labour, the best policy for the immediate future is probably to do or say nothing. The formation of the coalition seems to have driven back to Labour much of the ‘left-wing’ Lib Dem vote without its having to do much at all. But Ed Miliband seems to be developing the familiar bad habit of apologising for the party’s past. He is now alleged to feel that Labour did not talk sufficiently the ‘language of cuts’ and that it has learned its lessons. As an electoral strategy that is hopeless. First of all, Labour did talk the language of cuts; it just would not cut as deep and as fast as the coalition – which is perfectly defensible and seems, on the whole, to be the position of the majority of voters. Second, that kind of mea culpism won’t ingratiate Labour with the electorate, and is politically not what Labour ought to be doing. Miliband should be explaining why Labour was right, not why it was wrong. It all seems too drearily familiar: the reinvention of New Labour, now New New Labour. The last thing we need.