A quiet victory for the purple plotters
The result of the Oldham East and Saddleworth is unexceptional. As headlines go ‘opposition party retains seat in by-election’ is up there with ‘dog bites man’. Governments struggle to win by-elections because they happen, by definition, in the middle of the electoral cycle rather than at the end – the policies that the incumbents are pursuing have not yet had a chance to bear fruit. The main reason for the Lib Dems’ famed success at by-election coups is precisely that law, they have always been in opposition and so they have always begun a by-election race ahead of the pack.
But there is one interesting feature to the results – the decline in the Conservative vote. Last time around the Tory candidate, Kashif Ali, secured 26.4 per cent of the vote. This time round, same candidate, same party, he won a dismal 12.83 per cent. Of course this is disappointing but the cause is interesting – it is not unreasonable to presume that some of the support that abandoned Ali went to the Lib Dem candidate. There is strong anecdotal evidence – much reported by hacks throughout the campaign – that many Tory voters tactically switched their vote in a bid to keep Labour out. All of which means that, for all the protestations of some on the Tory right, there are some grassroots Tories who are happy take a pragmatic approach to this coalition and to put their votes where their mouths are.
The defection of Conservative voters to the Lib Dems represents a soft victory for the so called ‘purple plotters’. It shows that, even without a formal pact, many Tories are prepared to support Lib Dems for tactical reasons and that those voters are capable of saving them from the electoral apocalypse that more general polling predicts. This is significant for Lib Dem MPs worried about losing their seats come the next election as centre-left voters drift back to Labour. The lesson from Oldham is not that they should reject their associations with the Conservative Party, rather that they should hug Cameron and pals close in the hope that may sway the swing Tories in their constituency.