The numbers that show Tories really weren’t trying in Oldham

Conservatives spend less than 40 per cent of by-election limit.

Just under a month before the Oldham East and Saddleworth by-election, David Cameron told a Brussels press conference that he wished his Lib Dem coalition partners well in the forthcoming poll. To quote:

Obviously, in a coalition, you always wish your partners well. I think the coalition has worked extremely well. All I would say is, the context of the by-election is the MP elected at the election has been found in court to have told complete untruths about his opponent.

I think that is an extremely important context. In that context, we wish our partners well. They had an extremely tough time. All the unfairnesses and untruths about their candidate – he's now been exonerated. So of course I wish them well.

We'll be patrolling the same streets and fighting for the same votes. But I hope that will be done in a slightly more friendly manner than it has in the past.

On the eve of polling, by contrast, the Tory candidate in that by-election insisted he and his party had put everything into the campaign. Kashif Ali told politics.co.uk:

This suggestion that we're running a soft campaign is a complete nonsense. There's no truth in it.

And in the wake of a disappointing showing on 13 January that saw the Tory share of the vote drop from 26.4 per cent at the general election to 12.8 per cent (which still did not facilitate a Lib Dem win), senior members of the party insisted that they had given it all they had. One of them was the Tory co-chairman Baroness Warsi, who told the BBC:

It was resourced properly. We had volunteers on the ground. We had professionals on the ground. We had a great local candidate.

But now suspicions that in fact the Tories weren't really trying appear to have some numerical backing. According to figures disclosed to Newsnight's Michael Crick by Oldham Council, the Conservatives spent less than half both Labour and the Lib Dems during the campaign. Indeed, the party spent £4,000 less than Ukip. The breakdown is as follows:

Conservatives: £39,432
Labour: £97,085
Liberal Democrat: £94,540
Ukip: £43,855

As Crick points out, "the Conservatives spent less than 40 per cent of what they were legally entitled to". And as James Forsyth notes over on the Spectator's Coffee House tonight:

These figures show just how absurd it was for the Tories to claim that they were fighting a normal-style by-election campaign. There was clearly a deliberate decision to go easy in the seat to give the Liberal Democrat candidate the best chance possible. Those, like Baroness Warsi, who hotly denied this charge look rather silly this evening.

It seems Cameron's initial sentiment was closest to the mark, after all.

Jon Bernstein, former deputy editor of New Statesman, is a digital strategist and editor. He tweets @Jon_Bernstein. 

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Owen Smith is naïve if he thinks misogynist abuse in Labour started with Jeremy Corbyn

“We didn’t have this sort of abuse before Jeremy Corbyn became the leader.”

Owen Smith, the MP challenging Jeremy Corbyn in the Labour leadership contest, has told BBC News that the party’s nastier side is a result of its leader.

He said:

“I think Jeremy should take a little more responsibility for what’s going on in the Labour party. After all, we didn’t have this sort of abuse and intolerance, misogyny, antisemitism in the Labour party before Jeremy Corbyn became the leader.

“It’s now become something that is being talked about on television, on radio, and in newspapers. And Angela is right, it has been effectively licenced within the last nine months.

“We’re the Labour party. We’ve got to be about fairness, and tolerance, and equality. It’s in our DNA. So for us to be reduced to this infighting is awful. Now, I understand why people feel passionately about the future of our party – I feel passionately about that. I feel we’re in danger of splitting and being destroyed.

“But we can’t tolerate it. And it isn’t good enough for Jeremy simply to say he has threats too. Well, I’ve had death threats, I’ve had threats too, but I’m telling him, it’s got to be stamped out. We’ve got to have zero tolerance of this in the Labour party.”

While Smith’s conclusion is correct, his analysis is worryingly wrong.

Whether it is out of incompetence or an unwillingness to see the extent of the situation, Corbyn has done very little to stamp out abuse in his party, which has thus been allowed to escalate. It is fair enough of Smith to criticise him for his failure to stem the flow and punish the perpetrators.

It is also reasonable to condemn Corbyn's inability to stop allies like Chancellor John McDonnell and Unite leader Len McCluskey using violent language (“lynch mob”, “fucking useless”, etc) about their opponents, which feeds into the aggressive atmosphere. Though, as I’ve written before, Labour politicians on all sides have a duty to watch their words.

But it’s when we see how Smith came to the point of urging Corbyn to take more responsibility that we should worry. Smith confidently argues that there wasn’t “this sort of abuse and intolerance, misogyny, antisemitism” in the party before Corbyn was voted in. (I assume when he says “this sort”, he means online, death threats, letters, and abuse at protests. The sort that has been high-profile recently).

This is naïve. Anyone involved in Labour politics – or anything close to it – for longer than Corbyn’s leadership could tell Smith that misogyny and antisemitism have been around for a pretty long time. Perhaps because Smith isn’t the prime target, he hasn’t been paying close enough attention. Sexism wasn’t just invented nine months ago, and we shouldn’t let the belief set in that it did – then it simply becomes a useful tool for Corbyn’s detractors to bash him with, rather than a longstanding, structural problem to solve.

Smith's lament that “it’s now become something that is being talked about” is also jarring. Isnt it a good thing that such abuse is now being called out so publicly, and closely scrutinised by the media?

In my eyes, this is a bit like the argument that Corbyn has lost Labour’s heartlands. No, he hasn’t. They have been slowly slipping away for years – and we all noticed when Labour took a beating in the last general election (way before Corbyn had anything to do with the Labour leadership). As with the abuse, Corbyn hasn’t done much to address this, and his inaction has therefore exacerbated it. But if we tell ourselves that it started with him, then we’re grasping for a very, very simple solution (remove Corbyn = automatic win in the North, and immediate erasure of misogyny and antisemitism) to a problem we have catastrophically failed to analyse.

Anoosh Chakelian is deputy web editor at the New Statesman.