Oldham East and Saddleworth points in one direction

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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1 Comment on “Oldham East and Saddleworth points in one direction

  1. Thanks for this interesting post. A number of problems. First, formally combining Tory and LibDem voters kind of blows apart the idea of people voting for who they want. I know that Clegg and co reckon that the AV initiative will bring an end to tactical voting but last night there was a lot of tactical voting – of Tory voters trying to support the sinking LibDem ship and I reckon quite a few LibDem voters abandoning that ship for the Labour Party. Tactical all the way. By fielding only one candidate, the govt would be lessening voter choice – almost jerrymandering the election. Indeed, you might even disenfranchise right wing Tories or left wing (proper) LibDems. In the end, the voter must decide who wins and, I would argue, through their primary choice. I don't support AV because it too promotes more and more tactical voting and an MP who is simply the one most people can put up with. And gives more power to the LibDems when they have shown us what they intend to do with that power.
    Secondly, the nature of coalition government is that it is factional. Reading between the lines of last night (as you have done above) by careful comparison with recent polling, suggests Tories are much happier with the coalition than the LibDems. Now the LibDems aren't accepting that in public but it is pretty obvious (voting intention falling from 25% to 7%!). That might help the coalition to explore the way forward. There has been a lot of Tory courting of the LibDems. Michael Gove was at his creepy best on #bbcqt last night – unctiously applauding the LibDems including Charles Kennedy who looked pained beyond belief. Cameron even gave them the Oldham victory by wishing the LibDems all the best when the campaign opened and the guy who was in charge of the campaign and the BBC North correspondent there at the count last night were clear that this campaign had not been fought soundly by the blue team. What happened was orchestrated by on high as part of the attempt to court the LibDem and give them some healing balm to treat their wounds. In other words, last night was a gift from Cameron to Clegg – the Tory Prime Minister serving Kashif Ali's head (figuratively) to the LibDem Deputy Prime Minister. So much is having to go in their direction to prop them up. In fact, you could say that there really was only one candidate last night. The LibDems mustn't sit back and revel in 30%. Take off the Tories 14% decrease given to them by Cameron and that leaves on 16% in one of their key targets. Such a result should teach the LibDems and the Tories some lessons. My point is that having only one government candidate doesn't allow such lessons to be learnt.
    Personally, I think the coalition will last for the five years simply because the LibDems DARE NOT go to the polls at the moment. In a general election, I think they would be annihilated. As such, it may only be through by elections and local elections that we can see what real voters think and hope that our democracy works. If the govt starts fielding official candidates, I think we lose some important vestiges of democracy in our fair land.
    Pete

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