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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Will Corbynites be in charge of the Labour Party forever?

What yesterday's important rule changes say about Jeremy Corbyn and his senior team.

Corbynism forever? That's the general verdict on the consequence of Jeremy Corbyn's big victory on Labour's ruling executive yesterday, as the NEC passed proposals to reform the party's structures. The big ticket items: an expansion of the number of trade union and membership places on the NEC, and a reduction in the number of parliamentary signatures required for candidates for the party leadership, from 15 per cent to 10 per cent of the PLP. (That's 28 MPs and MEPs or 26 MPs if the next leadership election takes place if/when Brexit has happened and there are no MEPs.)

"Forever" is an awfully long time, and you don't have to remember that far back to a time when one member, one vote was meant to ensure that the likes of David Miliband would be elected leader forever. "Forever" turned out to mean "not at all". Labour has an amusing tradition of its constitutional quirks not quite working out the way its architects hope, and it may well happen the same way this time.

The far more interesting story is what these rule changes say about Jeremy Corbyn and his senior team. They're getting better at games of "you scratch my back, I scratch yours" with the trade unions. The leadership also backed the Jewish Labour Movement's motion giving the party tougher powers to kick anti-Semites out and released a statement about it, too. As well as being the right thing to do, there's a crude electoral argument here – if Labour can repair its relationship with the community, its dominance in the capital and elsewhere will only increase.

All in all, the Labour leader is taking the challenge of winning more seriously and his team are increasingly streetwise. His internal opponents, well, they seem to be going in the opposite direction.

You don't have to agree with it to see that there is a good principled case to be made against weakening the right of MPs to help select the party's leader. Making it might even help Labour's Corbynsceptics, as one of their biggest problems is that Labour members see them as unprincipled. Yet instead of making it, they're criticising the move as "a power grab", and one that divides Labour when they should be uniting against the Tories. Bluntly, Corbyn grabbed power once in September 2015 and again in September 2016 and consolidated it in June 2017.  And the problem is, it's only divisive because Corbynsceptics are opposing it.

(Also, let's face it, if June 2017 had ended in a Labour rout, you better believe that whichever Corbynsceptic MP emerged as leader would be changing the hell out of the Labour party rulebook right about now rather than focusing on beating the Tories.)

Although there are significant exceptions – Bridget Phillipson's recent longread for the New Statesman is one – it's all too rare to hear a senior Corbynsceptic argue from principle rather than expediency. And until that changes, Corbynites will, indeed, remain in charge of Labour forever.

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to domestic and global politics.