Oldham by-election: Who has the most to lose?

In our current imperfect form of representative democracy, voters on occasion have the opportunity to let their voices be heard via the ballot box in by-elections in between general elections. Instead of the opposition, by-elections are notoriously all about rewarding, or – as is most often the case – punishing the party or parties in power.

On this occasion, the Oldham East and Saddleworth by-election will allow the electorate to give a verdict on the policies and direction of the Tory-led government. History has shown that the opposition simply needs to do what every opposition does best in order to win – oppose.

Traditionally, by-election results are infamously difficult to forecast within a small margin of error, as proven on multiple occasions throughout the history of Parliament.

The Crewe & Nantwich by-election in May 2008, for example, was predicted to lead to a Conservative victory with a majority of 8.5 per cent over Labour. Although the seat did indeed turn out to be a Conservative gain, the majority amounted to an overwhelming 18.9 per cent – more than twice than that forecast.

More predictable than the voting outcome is the derived tension for the particular party and leader generally considered to have suffered the greatest loss. Along these lines, the Crewe & Nantwich by-election, “ranked 10 on the Westminster Richter Scale”, was the worst by-election outcome for Labour in more than 30 years and was one of the first signs of things to come for the recently appointed prime minister Gordon Brown.

One should also not forget the ‘super-safe seat’ in Glasgow East that ended in the harsh punishment of the government by falling to the SNP in July 2008 after a decrease of 19 per cent in the share of the vote for Labour. Previously the third safest seat in Scotland, the thirst for blood prevalent in media circles and beyond abounded following the nightmarish result and put Brown’s ability to win a general election in severe doubt.

The loss was partly, albeit certainly not wholly, to blame for his authority within and without the party to be put into question right up until May 2010.

A lesson that recent by-elections have shown again and again, as shown by the above examples, is how by-elections are usually a tool to punish the parties in power instead of rewarding those in opposition, often with the effect of intensifying the spotlight of public and media scrutiny upon the subjectively considered failed party and its leader.

In the case of Oldham & Saddleworth, despite the newly-led and invigorated Labour attack on the Tories, most observers will keep a keen eye on the Lib Dem performance.

One ought to remember how, less than just four years ago, then Lib Dem leader Sir Menzies Campbell faced increased party criticism following the disappointing by-election results in Ealing Southall and Sedgefield, two seats that the Labour party succeeded in holding despite a 7.3 per cent and 14.1 per cent contraction, respectively. It took a mere three months until Campbell eventually succumbed to the internal pressure and resigned.

Undoubtedly, Nick Clegg is not facing the same situation as that of his predecessor. Unlike 2007, the Lib Dems now find themselves sharing a government with the Tories, albeit with seemingly little say. Nonetheless, if Ed Miliband achieves a convincing victory over the Lib Dems, Mr Clegg will undoubtedly find himself under increasing pressure to justify why exactly they have to pay such a high price for so little political power.

Whatever the outcome, any predictions on the subsequent effect on the parties will have to be taken with a pinch of salt. This is underlined most recently by the outright and thoroughly convincing victory of the Labour party in Glasgow North East at the end of 2009, which against widespread expectations did not lead to the hoped-for change of wind for the general election.

Nevertheless, by-elections do often give a good indication of things to come for the government and indirectly the Labour party in this particular case. Unfortunately they cannot be compared to general elections. Instead, they often serve as a mere rebuke for the incumbent government and not as support for the opposition.

In consequence, if Labour does win the seat, it should not be taken as public support for its policies. A victory should therefore not lessen the pace of Labour’s drive to formulate credible economic policies; instead it should invigorate the party to defend itself more potently against an issue that remains at the forefront of the public’s distrust towards the party.

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