Saturday 5 December 2015

Oldham West: the reality

Labour's comfortable hold of Oldham West on Thursday was a bit of a surprise to most of the commentariat. Everyone - almost every single person - that had been on the campaign trail thought that the contest would be much tighter than it was. There seemed little risk that Labour would actually lose the seat (except at a few particularly gruesome moments in the campaign): UKIP hadn't carried the Oldham area even at the moment of its greatest success to date, the 2014 European Parliament elections. But many observers did detect a mood of anti-Labour (and especially anti-Jeremy Corbyn) feeling in the area. Enough, perhaps, to cut Labour's majority to a consensus figure of around 1,000-2,000 on a very low turnout. The present writer thought that Labour would hold by 3,000 to 4,000 on a 35% turnout. Reader, we are not perfect. Actually, Labour ended up moving forward a little bit on the May General Election, and ended up with a majority of 11,000 on a 40% turnout (perhaps around 4,500 on the turnout figure we'd imagined). So red faces - or perhaps red rosettes - for the 'experts' again? 

Well, maybe. But that's not a particularly useful way to think of poor observations or forecast misses. In fact, they're great. Because they tell us where we went wrong. They allow us to learn. And to expose our workings, for others to learn. So that we can see more clearly where we've been going wrong elsewhere. If we have.

That's especially so when this contest has been followed by a load of 'reassessments' of Mr Corbyn's leadership of the Labour Party, which as regular readers will know this blog thinks of as not only wrong in principle, but also a type of uniquely dangerous electoral anthrax of a type that might damage Labour's standing for a decade or more. Apparently things are a lot better than they looked, all of a sudden. So what's really going on? Are there crumbs of comfort here for Labour, even during its present reign as some sort of absurdist advert for hiring more Public Relations people who might actually know what they are doing?

Well, we think that there are three main lessons to take from most commentators' misreading of this by-election, thereby hopefully adding marginally to the slew of post-mortems. The first point to make is that this is quite close to what we should always have expected given present polling and the evidence that's come in from local by-elections. A small-ish United Kingdom Independence Party (UKIP) to Labour swing, in a safe Labour seat, is entirely unsurprising and normal when the polls have seen Labour basically slip back a little bit since May, while evidence mounts all around that they may be doing a little better in their 'heartland' areas - at the same time as UKIP also seem to be pretty much treading water (note that their vote also went up a touch). This is a confirmation of and a proof about the use of opinion polling, not some sort of wake-up call for forecasters. There's nothing here to cut across the picture we see in the national numbers: that Labour is a long way behind the Conservatives, that they are falling ever-further behind, and that they are now about eight or nine percentage points or so shy of their position relative to their main opponents at the same time in the last Parliament. It's a grim picture if you're on the British Left. If repeated in any linear way, by the way, that decline could see Labour down in the low twenties as a 2020 share of the vote, and returning only about 130 or 140 MPs in a post-boundary reforms 600-seat House of Commons. So there's that.

The second thing Oldham West tells us is that not everyone is obsessed with what goes on at Westminster, and indeed this effect may have become more pronounced after the Iraq War and the expenses scandal undermined faith in politicians. How else do the Scottish National Party and UKIP make hay out of the perceived evils of the 'old' parties in London, that host of 'Westmonster' and 'the establishment'? The wise people of Oldham West seem to have been more than impressed with the young, fluent and patently honest Jim McMahon (above), their local candidate who's been busying himself bringing jobs and regeneration to the town. You know, little things like a payslip and a coffee shop. Normal stuff. Stuff that actually matters to real people. Not Jeremy Corbyn, a faraway political figure many Oldham residents professed never to have heard of anyway. Not Hilary's Benn speech in the Syria debate. Not the endless permutations of Shadow Cabinet procedure. Not the fact that the Parliamentary Labour Party basically can't stand the sight of its own leader. No. Voters have come to despise politicians, and Mr McMahon doesn't look or sound like a robot out of central casting. His activists went out and fought for him with a real passion that he was the right man for the job (as he was), and they had a local story to tell. So Labour won. That's not a Left-wing or a Right-wing point. It's just a fact when Britons are so disillusioned with rulers who seem to know nothing at all about everyday life. 

The third and last lesson - and we cannot stress this enough - is not that Labour and its new leader don't have enormous, perhaps insurmountable, problems in trying to communicate with the wider electorate. Every single other data point that we've seen since the summer says something diametrically opposed to this newly-fashionable wisdom of the past 24 hours - and before you say 'well, the opinion polls are always wrong', that includes loads and loads of local by-elections which, although held on low turnouts themselves, have been pretty clear about what's happening. Labour is in a deep hole, and it seems likely to keep on digging. Where there are a high number of Green votes up for grabs, or where there are lots of liberal metropolitan and urban voters, Labour has and will do quite well - especially in London (on this basis, we think Sadiq Khan should just about be favourite for next year's London Mayoralty elections). But everywhere else, they are going backwards. On Thursday night, unheralded amidst the Oldham West drama, they demonstrated once more that they have lost quite a lot of votes since May in Guildford in Surrey, Meole in Shropshire (on their 2013 return), and Belvoir in Lincolnshire, while moving forward in their rock-solid London fortress of Newham. Have a look through yourselves, if you like: pretty much every Thursday night throws up the same pattern. Labour are going backwards, and General Election prediction sites right now think that they'd lose about 20 seats if there was an election tomorrow.

Think of it like this. Drawing a straight line between our polls now and 2020 paints about as dark a picture as any politician could even bear to look at. As does just about all the other data that's come in. But the path downwards for Labour - that gap between their performance now and in 2015, carried forward to the next election - is probably curved, and not linear: that is to say, as you squeeze the Labour vote more and more, resistance to further falls will become fiercer and fiercer as voters cleave to their traditional 'Labour' identity. So although they might get only 23% if the polls move as they did in the last Parliament, that won't happen. In places such as Oldham, where many people for generations have been Labour rather than voting Labour, many people will stick with the party through thick and thin. In that situation, UKIP's appallingly amateurish and (let's face it) quite nasty politics of identity will not get them as far in Northern England as the Conservatives' more emollient message will get them in the target-rich English Midlands. That's an especially strong finding since it seems that voters shy away from UKIP the more they close in on winning a seat: voters don't like the idea of being represented by people they perceive to be a bunch of extremists. What a surprise. Oldham West has begun to put a floor under our perceptions of Labour's retreat in its northern fastnesses: UKIP are probably not going to take lots of Labour seats in a sudden SNP-style onslaught. They might pick off a few, but that may well now be the limit of their advance. UKIP will harm Labour in Labour-Conservative marginals by peeling away some of Labour's natural support. But 'breaking through' themselves? It seems less likely now. By getting it a bit wrong in Oldham West, that's what we've learned. That's what we can take away. Labour still has life in it, whatever ludicrous trap its leadership next falls into or however much its MPs row - with each other.

But nor was the result particularly encouraging when we look at the annals of by-elections gone by. Let's give you some historical numbers here, since that what we're really for. Conservative leaders William Hague and Iain Duncan Smith met the voters for the first time in the Uxbridge and Ipswich by-elections of 1997 and 2001. In Uxbridge, in a seat the Conservatives already held with a large majority, they moved foward quite a lot, by... well, 7.6 per cent actually, an uncannily similar figure to Labour's 7.3 per cent upwards push in Oldham. There was a more-than-respectable 5.1 per cent swing to Mr Hague's party, during Tony Blair's electoral honeymoon, in an area where they must have thought they'd already maxed out their vote. In Ipswich, although the Conservative vote went down, Labour's fell further as the Liberal Democrats' rose, and there was a modest three per cent swing to the Conservatives - slightly larger, in fact, than the swing to Labour on Thursday night in Oldham. You don't need us to tell you the rest of the story: Mr Hague went on to be humiliated in the General Election of 2001, while Mr Duncan Smith was such a poor leader that the Conservatives turned in desperation to Michael Howard to reverse their members' choice. Michael. Howard. These two leaders' first by-election tests had demonstrated nothing at all about the disastrous lurch away from the electorate that their party was indulging in at the time.

Oldham West was such a good result for Labour, though an imperfect omen, because it showed that their machine can still get the vote out, and it took some (though only some) of the sting out of the 'Corbyn is toxic' argument. Note, however, that this was an example of the whole party as it is now constituted hanging together, with Labour's Right and Centre flooding in to help Mr McMahon - a notable ally of theirs, and a likely future Shadow Cabinet Minister or even leader - alongside Leftist types from Mr Corbyn's Momentum 'movement'. Everyone in Labour had something to gain here: the Right and Centre a new banner-bearer, and the Left a chance to take some of the heat off Mr Corbyn. Think that Labour will play nicely like this again, in different circumstances? If you do, you're a kinder person than most politicians, though maybe not most activists.

Let's take you back to Public Policy and the Past in 2011, and our comments on the Barnsley Central by-election. Then, as now, an unconvincing Labour leader met an electorate who seemed less than convinced about his credentials, and then as now UKIP tried to dent Labour's traditional hold on the town. The result was the same: a comfortable Labour hold. But our caution then proved prophetic, building up we hope some sort of capital for what we're saying now:
Labour will hardly be punching the air this morning. In a solid working class northern town, they beat a neo-liberal government cutting services on a low turnout. Excuse me while I stifle a yawn. In fact, the danger for Labour is that they retreat further into the comfort zone that the election of Ed Milliband as their leader perhaps suggested. Everything we know about the polling suggests that Labour's lead is rather small, reactive and soft - that it is made up of people defecting from the Lib Dems, yes, but also from 'don't know' or 'don't usually vote'. Unless Labour's really careful, all that will melt away again if and when the economy recovers... There is absolutely no doubt that the public want the deficit addressed, and that, rightly or wrongly, they think the last government overspent and overborrowed. Labour has to change that perception, or more likely, change the question and the subject. By-elections don't force you to do that. General elections do. So what does Barnsley tell us? Not much.
Replace the word 'Barnsley' with 'Oldham', and 'Ed Miliband' with 'Jeremy Corbyn', and everything we said then still holds pretty well today. Except that Ed Miliband did better than Mr Corbyn in his first few by-elections in charge - an early sign of progress that later turned very, very sour. The words 'Labour lead' are a bit of a period piece, though, and at the moment we're unlikely to see them written down anywhere for quite a while.

Our three takeaways from Oldham West? One: the national polling, when looked at in conjunction with local councils results, might now be giving us a fairly accurate picture of the situation. Two: Labour won here with a really good candidate, and by flooding the constituency with activists from all wings of the party who could get Labour's vote out - something that they are likely to be unable, or unwilling, to do in the nationwide elections of next May. Or in a General Election.

And third? This by-election may take the heat off Mr Corbyn for a while, but in and of itself - and beyond confirming some of our overall numbers - it tells us about the sum total of zero about the great contests to come. Oldham West indicates to us that Labour isn't going to entirely evaporate: their retreat will be fought all the way. The downward curve of the party's steep helter-skelter may become more kindly as its nears its bottom. Labour is fighting a kind of political Battle of El Alamein: a fading empire with enough strength remaining to ward off attacks on its rivals' flanks, but no longer possessing the power to go on the offensive.

We leave you with this thought. Are by-elections good indicators of the national future? Well, if you want to really know, you can ask Prime Ministers Hague, Duncan Smith and Miliband.