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CSI Oldham: The by-election autopsy

December 6th, 2015

Oldham Result

Alastair Meeks reviews the Oldham West and Royton by election

After any betting event, successful or unsuccessful, it is important to take stock of what went wrong and what went right.  This is especially important when expectations were completely upended, as happened on Thursday night in the Oldham West & Royton by-election.

What happened?

Contrary to all prior expectations, Labour not only won comfortably, it increased its share of the vote.  This should not have been a surprise.  As I noted last Monday, there had been four by-elections in the vicinity in the previous Parliament and Labour increased its vote share in all four.  In three out of four of these, Labour had increased its vote share and its majority in percentage terms by more than it did in Oldham West & Royton.  So for Labour, this was a perfectly normal result, neither great nor bad.

For the Conservatives too, this was a typical result in such a by-election.  Their vote dropped by 9.6%, which was very much in the same ballpark as the drop that it had seen in all four of the by-elections in the neighbourhood in the previous Parliament – they saw worse drops in three out of four of those constituencies.  So they’ll be pretty philosophical about this result.

What of UKIP?  In the last two by-elections in the area they had seen their vote share surge but from a much lower base.  This time their vote share rose slightly, but to nothing like the level seen in the Heywood & Middleton by-election which had inspired such hopes for them.  A rise in vote share is a rise, but they also saw a swing against them.  If UKIP are to progress further, they are going to have to start doing significantly better than they did here.

UKIP would argue fairly that in terms of swing it was nowhere near their most propitious seat.  But they had recorded their 66th best vote share in this constituency at the last election and if they are going to start to break the mould they will need to build on bases in seats just like this.  This has to be marked as an opportunity missed.  They need to do some soul-searching about what went wrong.

The Lib Dems lost their deposit and saw no change in their vote share from the last election.  Make no mistake, this is an awful result for them.  They can’t claim they didn’t try to make an impact, because they did.  Ten years ago they would have leapt at the chance of causing a sensation in such a by-election.  Today they have been completely forgotten about.  They need to think hard about how they’re going to grab the public’s attention again. For now, they have disappeared from the radar screens.

Turnout was OK, by local standards.  It dropped by a third since the general election, which is a smaller drop than the average in the four by-elections in the area in the last Parliament, but very much in the normal range.

So the by-election result looks pretty much exactly as we should have expected the moment that it was called.

Why did we expect anything different?

Context is everything and from an early stage in the by-election nervous noises started to emanate from the Labour camp, first in a trickle, then in a torrent.  Journalists were duly despatched to investigate and duly reported back that Jeremy Corbyn wasn’t playing well on the doorstep.  UKIP scented a chance and duly pressed their claims.  Some Labour politicians anonymously mused that it might even be best for Labour to lose this seat if it would precipitate Jeremy Corbyn’s exit.

Were we played for fools?  I don’t think so.  The reports were too numerous, from too many sources (some of whom got vehemently Momentummed on social media) and were too detailed to be completely made up.  Something was happening even if it didn’t show up in the result.

Did anyone have better information?  Again, I don’t think so.  The betting markets only swung decisively to Labour on the day of the vote itself.  Indeed, the most noteworthy aspect of the Betfair market was how thin the betting was.  If it was clear before then that it wasn’t close, too many people would have known and in you would have expected the odds to shift sooner.  So the final result was a surprise all round.

So what happened?

The result has been proclaimed a victory for many people.  The Corbynites have been quick to call it a victory for Jeremy Corbyn.  The non-Corbynites have made great play of the virtues of the centrist new Labour MP.  Enterprisingly, one commentator decided that it was a victory for the pollsters despite the fact that no polls were made public in the by-election.

Personally, I’d call it a clear victory for just one group: those who subscribe to the theory that “this time it’s different” are the four most expensive words in the English language.  Maybe the public were venting before the vote.  Maybe voters decided that loyalty to Labour or admiration for the candidate took precedence over dislike for the new leader.  For now at least, existing voting patterns are continuing.  Electorally at least, Jeremy Corbyn has started off as a leader in exactly the same vein as Ed Miliband.

Conclusion

We now have one substantial data point for Jeremy Corbyn’s electoral appeal.  He will no doubt develop his own distinctive electoral pattern.  It seems, however, as though this will be evolutionary, not revolutionary.  We shall get more data points next May.  Until then, we should all calm down.

Alastair Meeks