Saturday, 15 January 2011

What does Oldham East and Saddleworth tell us about how the Coalition will fight elections?

Oldham East and Saddleworth was a special by-election for several reasons. The circumstances surrounding its start for one, the fact it was, on paper, a three way marginal for another, and finally that it was the first by-election to take place in Coalition Britain. The by-election has several things to tell us about how the Coalition fights elections therefore.

For this election it seems that the Coalition engaged in a political experiment, for it appears that David Cameron tacitly supported the Lib Dem candidate, Elwyn Watkins. To what degree the Conservatives did or didn’t tacitly support the Lib Dems is not quite clear. Cameron wished the Lib Dems luck, but also campaigned in the constituency, as did many Conservative MPs. If they did however, they engaged in a sort of ‘electoral pact lite’ running a candidate but tacitly supporting the Lib Dems. The idea of a full electoral pact – parties not standing in constituencies to allow the other a free run, does not really appear to be a goer. On the one hand the party members and key backbenchers are clearly opposed, for another suggests that a ‘Coalition Party’ would poll seven points behind Labour, whereas as separate parties the Conservatives poll only five percent behind Labour. This suggests that a ‘Coalition Party’ would be unlikely to perform better than the two separate parties.

So a full electoral pact does not really seem likely, but what of this tacit ‘pact lite’, if such a thing exists. Well in its first electoral test it may firstly appear to have failed – after all Labour won the seat on an increased majority, but then recall a few things. Firstly the national polling picture should mean that the Labour Party should increase its vote. Secondly, the Liberal Democrat vote remained fairly stable (in actuality picking up 0.3%) while the Conservative Party, which is polling relatively level with Labour, halved its vote. This suggests that, while yes, Lib Dem voters defected to Labour, there was a fair slice of tactical voters from the Conservatives who were willing to vote Lib Dem to keep Labour out (though it should be noted, that as Tom has pointed out, there are reasons why one would expect the Conservative Party to lose votes in this election anyway, due to a lack of local infrastructure, their third party status, and as, historically, the Conservative Party has been quite poor at targeting its vote into a single seat). While the Labour Party won then, there is some evidence to suggest that there is opportunity in this strategy, and that Conservative Party voters are willing to lend their support to Liberal Democrats.

Now comes the downsides. UKIP scored a mini-victory by gaining 1.9% of the vote and going up to 5.8%. These are still small numbers, but in a by-election like this, that is fairly close, I would expect minor party voters to homogenise around the main two candidates. Indeed, no other minor party can be said to have gotten a particularly encouraging result. This suggests that there is a segment of annoyed right-wing Conservatives willing to vote UKIP to express frustration at a government they do not see as right-wing enough. This may cause huge difficulties for the Tories, particularly if it grows. Another problem lies in the nature of British electoral politics, for there are very few seats in Britain which are Lib-Lab marginals. Most Lib Dem seats have the Tories in second place, with Labour often lagging well behind. Given this, there is much less reason for a Conservative Party supporter to tactically support the Lib Dems. It may be that in such seats the Lib Dems can peel moderate Tories away, particularly if they have a popular, well-known incumbent, but it is an established truism in these seats that Labour supporters have often tactically voted Liberal Democrat themselves. It is doubtful that such voters will remain as predisposed towards the Liberal Democrats in these seats. A fascinating dynamic is thus established, one which has not yet been tested electorally – just how will Lib-Con marginals behave, and how will the parties behave. Will the Conservatives still tacitly back Lib Dems in regions like Cornwall, which are straight Lib-Con fights and which they could win? This will tell us much more about the dynamics of a general election campaign. Voters, it should be noted, also behave very differently in by-elections to how they behave in national ones.

So then a mixed message, at best perhaps; yet I suspect the ‘electoral pact lite’ model is one the Coalition will continue to use. Indeed, this is not an entirely new practice, with Labour and the Lib Dems historically being willing to take it easy on each other so as to concentrate fire on keeping the Conservatives out (a practice which the Lib Dems did not hold to in 2010). A ‘two against one’ strategy appears to have been deployed in 2001, for example. The big unanswered question however is simply thus: Will the Conservative Party be so willing to allow Lib Dems an easier time in seats where the Conservatives are in second? This is a question to which I cannot answer, or even speculate about, but it is the question that will perhaps define how many seats the Lib Dems get at the next election.

And so onto future by-elections, who knows what they will tell us about Coalition politics, but Britain-Votes will be there to cover it.

1 comment:

  1. My expectation is that there will be a muddled sense of 'tactical voting' to try and protect some LibDem seats. But this would amount to trying to build up a flood barrier by moving around the sand-bags. As mentioned on my own blog, even perfectly targeted tactical voting of 15% would only save a small amount of seats from the LibDem collapse.

    I also expect a half-hearted "electoral-pact lite" would be far less than accurately targeted, and could well result in the Conservatives losing seats to labour because of splitting their vote. Particularly if it were only supported by conservatives rather than the remaining lib-dem support.