What the By-Election Means

Ross McKibbin

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 saw 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.


  • 18 January 2011 at 2:07pm
    James Alexander says:
    Clegg probably did mention savage cuts, because taking every possible position serially is a tactic of sorts; but he also notoriously said this:

    "...let's say there was a Conservative government, right, and let's say a Conservative government announced, in that macho way, we're going to slash public spending by a third, slash this, slash this, we're going to do it tomorrow, we have to take early tough action. Just imagine the reaction of my constituents in South-East Sheffield. I represent the constituency that has more people working in the public services as a proportion of the workforce than any other constituency in the country. Lots of people working in the university, hospitals, and so on, they have no Conservative Councillors, no Conservative MPs, there are no Conservative MPs or Councillors as far as the eye can see in South Yorkshire. People are going to say who are these people suddenly telling us they're going to take our jobs away, who are these people threatening my living, what mandate do they have, I didn’t vote for them, no-one around here voted for them. And I think if we want to go the direction of Greece where you get real social and industrial arrest (sic - unrest?) that's the guaranteed way of doing it, and thinking that the old tub-thumping way of conducting politics is the way we bring people along....."

    (My transcription from Video on posted 15 July 2010: Clegg speaking at Yorkshire Post event on 19 March 2010.)

  • 18 January 2011 at 4:09pm
    Joe Morison says:
    It is probably over four years until the next election, and it’s very hard to say how the country will see things by then. You don’t have to support the Coalition to prefer the idea of the Cameroons in coalition with the free-market Lib Dems to that of the Cameroons in coalition with the socially conservative wing of their party. People voting in Tory / Lib Dem marginals might be choosing which sort of Cameron government they want, there’s no reason to think the Lib Dems would do badly. In Lib Dem / Labour marginals, RM might be right in saying that Tory tactical voting is less likely than in O&S but with every passing reality show tactical voting becomes a more and more normal activity; and four years is a long time.

  • 20 January 2011 at 5:30am
    philip proust says:
    I disagree with Ross McKibbin's insistence that the Labour Party should not apologize for some of its past actions. Blair's Iraq policy, for example, has to be repudiated in an emphatic manner; it would be absurd for the party to pretend that the Iraq adventure was not ruinous in every respect.

    Also, Brown's weakness in not tackling the City's obscene bonuses can hardly pass scrutiny and also requires public rejection. The Labour Party can gain electoral traction by positioning itself as the party that saved business but is not subservient to it - in the way that Cameron so plainly is.

    The never-apologize formula is a tired old tactic that itself deserves an apology; it is a component of the politics of cynicism. A Miliband leadership that did not meaningfully distance itself from the Blair-Brown years would be seen by voters as evidence that the party, if elected, would merely continue the policies that caused its setbacks at the last election; the danger of this occurring is why David Miliband - Blair mark II - was passed over as leader. This distancing does not entail the idea that everything Labour did while in office needs to be jettisoned. The party's genuine accomplishments need to be highlighted but not bundled with actions that were manifestly negative.