Oldham East and Saddleworth points in one direction

… and that is coalition by-election candidates.

A lot of fuss today in centre right blogs on how to respond to the result overnight from the by-election. Conservative Home has joined the criticism of some in the Tory party of how the leadership essentially undermined (in their opinion) the blue’s campaign in the seat. Meanwhile, Benedict Brogan (who just feels a lot more comfortable having moved to the Telegraph from the Daily Mail) is highlighting more of the emerging divisions in the Conservative Party (and the Coalition).

So what is the solution? Do the Conservatives need to define themselves more clearly? Is there now an obligation on the Liberal Democrats to sacrifice something for the Tories? How should the two parties approach the next by-election (and there are two possibly coming up very soon)?

Quite simply, the answer is to have joint coalition candidates for any future by-elections in this Parliament. Why?

  1. It is clear from the breakdown of voter preferences that a large number of Conservative voters from the General Election switched to the Liberal Democrats in order to try and stop Labour winning. Whilst the churn might be more complicated then that, it is more than obvious that the Lib Dem vote share held up not because those who voted in 2010 all returned for a second go yesterday, but because those who voted for their present coalition partner in May last year were prepared to back them. As the opinion polls over the last few months have shown us, whilst the Lib Dem support declines, those who remain intent on voting for them are fans of the coalition as much as those who have deserted them are not. As Tory voters backed the Lib Dems yesterday, the polling this autumn/winter indicates that the remaining Lib Dem supporters would happily return the favour.
  2. By-elections are fundamentally different beasts to General Election. A General Election, whilst obviously a verdict on the past, is really about the future – it’s about what the voters want next. It makes sense for coalition partners to fight a General Election separately because their respective positions after the vote will determine how much influence each has in the next Parliament / Coalition. A by-election on the other hand is about the here and now. The last time a Government fell because it lost a by-election was arguably in 1979 as the Labour government lost seat after seat and then saw the withdrawal of voting support from the Liberals. The current coalition doesn’t face that problem – to be honest they could lose 10 seats a year and still have a governing majority!
  3. Here’s the crunch – whether a by-election elects a Conservative MP or a Lib Dem MP, it won’t affect Government policy. The plans of the government have been laid out for at least the next 24 months and the particular colour rosette of the winner of the latest by-election won’t change that. You might argue that this morning’s result will have an impact on the future direction of the Government, but I’d be willing to wager it won’t. Despite the frantic panic of some of the comment today, in a month’s time we’ll forget all about it and find something else to gripe about. The bottom line is that one more or less Tory or Lib Dem MP is not going to change the direction of the Government.
  4. Imagine though if there had been a coalition candidate yesterday. If the candidate had won it would have been seen as a victory for the government, a backing of the current coalition programme. Huge cheers as both parties (Tory and Lib Dem) take credit. If on the other hand they had lost then the defeat could have been written off as the normal thing that happens during a Parliament. As was rightly pointed out by the Lib Dems at the count, it’s 29 years since a Governing party gained a seat in a by-election and that was in the wake of the Falklands War (West Bromwich West doesn’t count). Even the most fanatical of supporters recognises the difference between the low poll ratings and by-election disasters that toppled Thatcher in 1990 and the “normal” result that we got last night.
  5. But further to this point, a joint defeat would avoid the Tory/Lib Dem blame game that is currently going on post OES result. If the candidate is a joint candidate and both parties (Westminster based and local activists) have backed him or her, a defeat is not automatically cause for blame. The kind of scenes today of quid-pro-quo and blame/anger for the Tory (subtle) backing of the Lib Dem candidate simply wouldn’t happen. A joint candidate, win or lose, would strengthen the coalition, not weaken it.
  6. Really, when those Lib Dem and Tory activists get together for a few days they might find that they actually get on! That can’t be a bad thing.

I guess the only question left is how to decide which party should supply the candidate? Well there are two obvious options. The first is simply to allow the party that got the most votes in 2010 to supply the candidate. The other is, as Graeme Archer has already argued, to hold joint open primaries. Either way, the process should be open and above board.

You know I’m right and I look forward, when Christopher Wiggin is announced as the “Coalition Liberal Democrat” candidate (and Piers Tempest is his campaign manager) for the upcoming Barnsley Central by-election, you’ll all say “We heard it here first”.

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