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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After Richmond Park, Labour MPs are haunted by a familiar ghost

Labour MPs in big cities fear the Liberal Democrats, while in the north, they fear Ukip. 

The Liberal Democrats’ victory in Richmond Park has Conservatives nervous, and rightly so. Not only did Sarah Olney take the votes of soft Conservatives who backed a Remain vote on 23 June, she also benefited from tactical voting from Labour voters.

Although Richmond Park is the fifth most pro-Remain constituency won by a Conservative at the 2015 election, the more significant number – for the Liberal Democrats at least – is 15: that’s the number of Tory-held seats they could win if they reduced the Labour vote by the same amount they managed in Richmond Park.

The Tories have two Brexit headaches, electorally speaking. The first is the direct loss of voters who backed David Cameron in 2015 and a Remain vote in 2016 to the Liberal Democrats. The second is that Brexit appears to have made Liberal Democrat candidates palatable to Labour voters who backed the party as the anti-Conservative option in seats where Labour is generally weak from 1992 to 2010, but stayed at home or voted Labour in 2015.

Although local council by-elections are not as dramatic as parliamentary ones, they offer clues as to how national elections may play out, and it’s worth noting that Richmond Park wasn’t the only place where the Liberal Democrats saw a dramatic surge in the party’s fortunes. They also made a dramatic gain in Chichester, which voted to leave.

(That’s the other factor to remember in the “Leave/Remain” divide. In Liberal-Conservative battlegrounds where the majority of voters opted to leave, the third-placed Labour and Green vote tends to be heavily pro-Remain.)

But it’s not just Conservatives with the Liberal Democrats in second who have cause to be nervous.  Labour MPs outside of England's big cities have long been nervous that Ukip will do to them what the SNP did to their Scottish colleagues in 2015. That Ukip is now in second place in many seats that Labour once considered safe only adds to the sense of unease.

In a lot of seats, the closeness of Ukip is overstated. As one MP, who has the Conservatives in second place observed, “All that’s happened is you used to have five or six no-hopers, and all of that vote has gone to Ukip, so colleagues are nervous”. That’s true, to an extent. But it’s worth noting that the same thing could be said for the Liberal Democrats in Conservative seats in 1992. All they had done was to coagulate most of the “anyone but the Conservative” vote under their banner. In 1997, they took Conservative votes – and with it, picked up 28 formerly Tory seats.

Also nervous are the party’s London MPs, albeit for different reasons. They fear that Remain voters will desert them for the Liberal Democrats. (It’s worth noting that Catherine West, who sits for the most pro-Remain seat in the country, has already told constituents that she will vote against Article 50, as has David Lammy, another North London MP.)

A particular cause for alarm is that most of the party’s high command – Jeremy Corbyn, Emily Thornberry, Diane Abbott, and Keir Starmer – all sit for seats that were heavily pro-Remain. Thornberry, in particular, has the particularly dangerous combination of a seat that voted Remain in June but has flirted with the Liberal Democrats in the past, with the shadow foreign secretary finishing just 484 votes ahead of Bridget Fox, the Liberal Democrat candidate, in 2005.

Are they right to be worried? That the referendum allowed the Liberal Democrats to reconfigure the politics of Richmond Park adds credence to a YouGov poll that showed a pro-Brexit Labour party finishing third behind a pro-second referendum Liberal Democrat party, should Labour go into the next election backing Brexit and the Liberal Democrats opt to oppose it.

The difficulty for Labour is the calculation for the Liberal Democrats is easy. They are an unabashedly pro-European party, from their activists to their MPs, and the 22 per cent of voters who back a referendum re-run are a significantly larger group than the eight per cent of the vote that Nick Clegg’s Liberal Democrats got in 2015.

The calculus is more fraught for Labour. In terms of the straight Conservative battle, their best hope is to put the referendum question to bed and focus on issues which don’t divide their coalition in two, as immigration does. But for separate reasons, neither Ukip nor the Liberal Democrats will be keen to let them.

At every point, the referendum question poses difficulties for Labour. Even when neither Ukip nor the Liberal Democrats take seats from them directly, they can hurt them badly, allowing the Conservatives to come through the middle.

The big problem is that the stance that makes sense in terms of maintaining party unity is to try to run on a ticket of moving past the referendum and focussing on the party’s core issues of social justice, better public services and redistribution.

But the trouble with that approach is that it’s alarmingly similar to the one favoured by Kezia Dugdale and Scottish Labour in 2016, who tried to make the election about public services, not the constitution. They came third, behind a Conservative party that ran on an explicitly pro-Union platform. The possibility of an English sequel should not be ruled out.  

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