Friday, January 14, 2011

Oldham's Message

A Labour seat has been held by a Labour candidate with an increased majority at a time when the fiscal conservatism of the existing Conservative/Lib Dem coalition government is starting to prove unpopular. So far, so relatively predictable. The furore surrounding the discredited former Labour MP for the seat, Phil Woolas, originally gave rise to the hope amongst the narrowly defeated Liberal Democrats that they might be able to take the seat. That they didn't is not the biggest blow the party could have received, especially given that they have managed to sustain their vote (adding a small 0.3% on a lower turnout) at a time when the Lib Dems as a party, and Nick Clegg as leader in particular, have been given a hammering over student fees. So they can breathe reasonably freely today.

The Conservatives, on the other hand, never far from civil war, may find the result rather less encouraging. Reports are that they ran a lacklustre campaign, despite keeping their strong local candidate, in order to give the Lib Dems a clearer run. Their vote, in consequence, pretty well collapsed. As it happens, the vote that turned out appears to have gone primarily to Labour, rather than to an obvious Tory protest party like UKIP. The rest of their vote simply stayed at home. This is going to give the Tory rightists, agitating ever more obviously for a dilution of David Cameron's commitment to the Coalition, a chance to enter the fray again and slate the party leadership for its unwillingness to fight a full blooded campaign. As such, that decision of the Tory High Command's may prove to have been a tactical error, particularly as a higher Tory vote, and a better campaign, may not in fact have damaged the Lib Dem chances as much as Cameron and co obviously thought. Whatever the state of play in Westminster, the Tory and Lib Dem voters are not so easily transferable it would seem.

For Nick Clegg, it may be a bit of a relief that attention could turn for a while to the Tories' woes. After all, he has been a useful lightning conductor for them for a little longer than he might have liked. For David Cameron, it's another in his endless round of internecine warfare with his traditionalist opponents. And for Ed Milliband, the result has bought him some time off from the quiet sniping about his leadership that was already beginning.

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