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Friday, January 14, 2011

Defying the doom-mongers

The outcome of the Oldham East and Saddleworth by-election was a good result for both Labour and for the Liberal Democrats.

Labour managed to avoid the pitfalls of defending a marginal seat in difficult circumstances and emerged with a respectable majority. The Liberal Democrats defied the doom-mongers who, only a few weeks ago said that they were going to come third and held on to second place and their vote share. In fact the Liberal Democrat share of the vote went up ever so slightly. It was an extra-ordinary performance in the face of supposed single-figure poll ratings and demonstrates that when it comes to actually putting a cross on a ballot paper people behave more rationally.

It was also a test of the Liberal Democrats' record in government and, despite disillusionment at some difficult decisions taken by Ministers, this result seems to indicate that voters understand that things are not so black and white when in government and that they like the liberal and moderating tone that we have brought to the Coalition. This includes policies to take the poorest out of tax altogether, linking pensions to earnings, the pupil premium, a revitalised civil liberties and constitutional agenda and action to tackle climate change.

It is true that there was a fair bit of tactical voting by Tories but that happens in any First Past the Post election and I do not accept the argument that the Conservatives took their foot off the pedal. I saw a fair bit of evidence of Tory activity when I was up there and it is an exceptional event for a Tory Prime Minister to campaign in a by-election. The reality is that the Tories were out of the contest from the start and that was reflected in campaigning work.

Having said that Mike Smithson over at Political Betting points out that the tactical voting was not as clear cut as some commentators would have us believe. He suggests that broadly about two thirds of the Tory losses went to the Liberal Democrats, the rest went elsewhere.

Personally, I am encouraged by this result. It shows that my judgement to treat poor polling results for the Liberal Democrats in Wales with a pinch of salt is justified. We have a good message to sell about our successes in government at a UK level, our effectiveness in the Welsh Assembly and our plans for the next Assembly. If we can do so well then we can not only retain all our Assembly seats in May but maybe add to them.
Something else that should be taken with a pinch of salt is Labour's complaint that we were seeking to gain advantage by moving the OE&S writ quickly. It was, in fact, Labour who benefited. The reasons for the by-election had faded in people's memory, whereas the publicity about the VAT rise was fresh. It should be noted that Eric Illsley has been persuaded to stand down quickly so that Labour can get a by-election in Barnsley Central. They do not want to wait until pensioners and taxpayers have extra money in their pockets as a result of Liberal Democrat policy.
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