Oldham by-election

One day I’m going to write a generic post by-election post labelled (insert constituency name here) that I can repost after every by-election. Until that day, here’s my traditional answer to what last night’s by-election tells us about the national political picture: not much.

By-election are extremely strange beasts. They take place in a single constituency that may be completely untypical of the country as a whole, they normally have no impact at all upon who will be running the country the next day, they have far greater campaigning intensity than any other election. After every by-election I post the same conclusion – if they show much the same as the national polls suggest they tell us nothing new, if they show something different it’s probably to do with the unique and different circumstances of by-election. In this case the opposition party has held onto a safe seat. This is exactly what we should expect unless they are tanking in the national polls, and Labour aren’t: despite Corbyn’s poor ratings and the constant news stories of Labour infighting their level of support is still pootling along at around their general election share. There is no reason to expect UKIP surges either – in the last Parliament UKIP had soared from 3% to the mid-teens, so almost every by-election saw them surging, but now we are comparing their support to what they got in the 2015 general election, after their breakthrough. This is a good local result for Labour, but doesn’t tell us much new.

That’s not to say it’s not important. By-elections have a significant effect on the political narrative and in that sense this is a very good result for Labour (or, depending on your point of view, for Jeremy Corbyn). If this by-election had gone differently it would have been part of a different narrative, it would have been all about Labour in crisis, their traditional working class support fracturing to UKIP. It would still have been over interpreting a by-election, but it would almost certainly have happened and it’s been avoided. In that sense, it’s an important victory.

A final note about the polling – there wasn’t any (I don’t know whether to be amused or depressed by the handful of comments I’ve seen about it being a another polling failure. Nothing to do with us mate!). By election polling used to be very rare, then in the last Parliament we were suddenly spoilt, with Survation and Ashcroft polls for most By-elections. This time we are back to having no real evidence to go on, to relying on what commentators have been told by the campaigns, what it “feels like” on the doorstep and in vox pops and all that sort of nonsense. I suspect the collective commentariat have got carried away with what would have made an interesting narrative to report, rather than dull old “safe seat held”. It’s a reminder that without any proper polling By-elections can be pretty hard things to call.

270 Responses to “Oldham by-election”

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  1. While I’m not disagreeing that it might be true, calling commentators reporting of what it feels like on the door step ‘nonsense’ when a lot of past polling has well and truly turned out to be nonsense feels a bit like the pot calling the kettle black.

  2. Loving Twitter / News comments this morning. The various flavours:

    – Labour’s / Corbyn’s great cos the vote share is higher than 1997

    – Labour’s / Corbyn’s in trouble cos the majority is down

    – Farage is right. Something is dodgy, cos the vote share is higher, but the majority is down

    – It’s Friday!



    Lovely quotes, LOL.

  4. Great post as always Anthony. The media always struggle to find space for the “Labour doing as expected in ultra-safe seat they should hold easily” headline. Can’t think why (or why my career as a headline writer never took off :-) )!

  5. Whatever the shortcomings in Corbyn’s operation, their expectations management has been superb. Big own goal for Westminster Blairites (again).

    Also shows limited usefulness of vox pops, even Guardian ones.

  6. Labour’s expectation management has been superb , and UKIP’s has been plain awful. If I were in charge of UKIP’s campaign I would learn lessons, keep expectations low enough that you don’t end up looking like you failed even when you actually gained a small amount of ground percentage wise. There was a lot of abstention in this election from Labour voters disaffected with Corbyn.

  7. Labour holds safe seat with increased share of the vote shock.

    UKIP say establishment is against them shock.

    Tories nowhere to be seen in northern town shock.

    And yes, as said above, today is friday shock.

    I’m going back to bed to recover!

  8. Morning all. Another day, another Corbyn-is-the-second-coming-no-he’s-not-he’s-a-very-naughty-boy…..Thankfully AW is here with some sense, it was a by-election with a very popular local candidate that I suspect has probably taken a few cross-party tactical votes. Everyone will have their wee spin on it today, but by next week it’ll be largely irrelevant.

    On Farage and the postal votes, I have two brief thoughts. I’m not a great fan of the postal vote, but if we’re actually interested in having reasonable turnouts in elections, surely holding elections on a Thursday isn’t the best idea? Secondly, if Farage has good sources telling him about electoral fraud, why doesn’t he go to the police with the evidence? If there are legitimate issues in this constituency, then that’s fair enough, but simply citing “sources” isn’t going to cut it – particularly when your party has lost by more than the entire postal vote! The undertone of Asians/Muslims voting as a bloc is a funny issue for me – it’s fairly obvious that certain demographics and minorities have certain voting preferences. Surely, parties would be better trying to see why certain groups don’t vote for them (this is true for all parties), rather than whining that they don’t?

    On actual polling, the ARD in Germany run monthly opinion polls, the so-called “DeutschlandTrend”. This month, they asked about terrorism and German participation in Syria. The headline results are here (German only): http://www.tagesschau.de/inland/deutschlandtrend/index.html

    Some of the findings include:
    58% in favour of German participation against IS. 59% in favour of air reconnaissance, 34% in favour of air attacks, 22% in favour of ground troops. 61% concerned for terrorist attacks (up 16% since January and Charlie Hebdo attacks). 63% believe that German military participation would increase the possibility of terrorist attacks (only 2% believe it would reduce).

    In terms of VI: CDU/CSU 37 (0), SPD 25 (+1), Left 8(-1), Greens 11(0), AfD 10(+2), FDP 4 (-1), Others 5 (-1). Assuming the FDP don’t reach the 5% threshold, this would mean that a so-called Rot-Rot-Gruen coalition (SPD/Left/Green) would be just short of a majority, while the Union fraction could choose between SPD, Greens (unlikely) or AfD.

  9. Of course it was a polling failure, Anthony.

    Failure to conduct any polls is the biggest failure of all.

  10. Corbyn may have played no direct role in the Oldham by-election campaign, however, given the media coverage of Parliament this week, like Banquo’s ghost he was certainly there in spirit,

    Clearly to say that Oldham demonstrated that people voted “for” him would be a rather partisan reading of the result.

    Would it be fair to draw the conclusion that if people feel they may have reasons to vote Labour, then he isn’t necessarily the deal breaker that Westminster recieved opinion has ascribed to him ?

  11. The press and media look daft again.

  12. NICKP
    Toby only got 11:4 on a UKIP win. Nver mind the pollsters, the betting sites have failed spectacularly! I thought they always got it right.

  13. The key point here is AW’s comment on by-elections that “they have far greater campaigning intensity than any other election.”

    In the context of the last week, that means that while the national media debate was dominated by the decision on Syria and the rift it led to within Labour, the people of Oldham will have experienced something very different. The Labour campaign literature will have extended its previous focus on tax credits to the continuing of that in the guise of universal credit as well as the implications of all of the five years worth of cuts set out in the Autumn Statement and what it means for Oldham. Oldham may well have experienced a Labour attempt to rebut Osborne’s initial spin on the Autumn Statement that its fixation on Syria denied to the rest of the country.

    It shows too that, while UKIP may have run a campaign focused on Corbyn, that is not enough to cost Labour votes if people are being asked to vote for a well known and apparently respected local candidate. It may or may not also be significant that that candidate also has dissenting views from those of Corbyn, I suspect not as Labour will hardly have been broadcasting that fact.

  14. Just so people know (that don’t already of course)

    The Constituency of Oldham West & Royton is really only half of the Town of Oldham itself (the western fringe which just reaches into Oldham Town Centre)
    The rest of the constituency is actually made up of the two former mill towns of Royton (Population 25,000) and the larger town of Chadderton (Population 35,000) – Sadly not included in the constituency name but still a major player in the numbers game.

    And it’s ROYTON and NOT ROYSTON as some people on here keep calling it. – Royston is in Hertfordshire – Royton is in Lancashire!

  15. Phil

    I would expect that Tax Credits will have helped Labour with working class voters of all racial groups, with Corbyn’s opposition to air strikes playing well with the Asian population too.

    The turnout on a day with such awful weather suggests a decent level of voter motivation, which is good. Chapeau bas to the GOTV teams.

  16. The thing that would really worry Cameron et al is if UKIP started to gain some traction in advance of the referendum. In that respect this is a satisfactory result for him. Labour holding a safe seat in an area where hell would freeze over before the majority of the electorate would vote Tory, is neither a shock nor a disappointment. We will have to wait until there is a contest where both the main parties are in with some sort of shout, to be able to come to any meaningful conclusions, notwithstanding Anthony’s caveats.

  17. Sage words from AW. Rather funny watching the press work out how to cover the result, after the froth of the last week, but I’m sure they won’t dwell for long on the collective falure to predict.

    Equally, Corbyn backers are getting excited unnecessarily. A constituency with a very good loacl Labour candidate, a high Muslim population, just when Labour’s ‘useless’ leader comes out very strongly against more bombing, and a very low turnout. This can’t be seen as a fantastic result – merely what Labour needs to achieve as pretty much a base minimum, if winning in 2020 is really on the cards.

    The caravan moves on.

  18. Well I was surprised, it has not been a good week for Labour (okay an understatement it has been a terrible week) This by-election was on a cold day December, when traditionally it is difficult to get the Labour vote out. Also UKIP hoping to take advantage of disgruntled white working class votes and also take support from the Conservatives. On the day Labour increased their share of the vote by 7% and no real sign of Labour voters moving to UKIP.
    As to Corbyn not featuring UKIP and the Conservatives certainly made him a central feature of their campaigns.

    But of course as AW says H you can read too much into it, by-elections are notoriously bad indicators of what happens in General Elections.
    Having said that I think UKIP will be more disapojnted with this result than the conservatives, even though they did better. If they are to make a break through in the Northern Labour strongholds they needed to do a lot better than this.

  19. RMJ1

    I wondered if the referendum might shift some Eurosceptic Labour voters into the UKIP column, but I now think that is a much bigger risk for the Conservatives.

    Cameron is going to have to really push the virtues of the EU, whereas I think we know that Corbyn is at least fairly Eurosceptic himself.

  20. Why can’t we get separate figures for postal votes? Wouldn’t this
    1. point to possible anomalies, and
    2. Cut the legs out from under spurious claims of fraud?

  21. I thought we already knew there were 7000 postal votes?

    Fewer in total than the 10,000+ majority, in fact.

  22. Let’s face it, the biggest beneficiaries of postal voting are the Conservatives with their crinkly vote.

    It is not going to get changed unless they can work out some way to do it to partisan advantage.

  23. Trying to extrapolate this election into anything approaching a national picture is pure folly, but we see the same silliness and crystal ball gazing every time there are council elections as well. This will be long forgotten in a few months time, and ancient history at the next election.

    This was a victory for the local candidate, and nothing more than that.

  24. RMJ1

    “Labour holding a safe seat in an area where hell would freeze over before the majority of the electorate would vote Tory, is neither a shock nor a disappointment.”

    As I posted earlier the Tories are probably quietly pleased that UKIP did badly and that the result helps to keep Corbyn in place. Their dearest wish must be that Corbyn is in place as Labour leader at the 2020 election.

  25. The Tories were hoping for a Labour implosion, which has not happened.

  26. As I posted earlier, regardless of who benefits I would ban postal voting for all except those who are incapacitated in some way and have a medical certificate. Postal voting is very open to fraud IMO.

  27. Alec

    Agreed with your reasoning on the result.

  28. NICKP
    I agree, labour won for sure, but why can’t we be told how the postal voters voted? It’s a simple question.
    Surely more transparency would ADD credibility to postal voting. If we knew that 70% of postal votes were for labour wouldn’t that be great? What would mr farage say then?

  29. TOH

    I think it will take a lot to shift Corbyn and even more to replace him with someone more electable nationally. They may well lose a number of council seats in May but unless they are wiped out – most unlikely – this would probably not trigger a change. It would take an extended run of poor results to do that and that means any change would probably be too late for 2020.

  30. I have heard about the UKIP “White Christmas” van.

    I also read that some bussed-in UKIP activists turned up wearing “comedy” flat caps.

    Is this really true? Are they really that crass and inept?

  31. While this election means nothing nationally, I think that – at least for now, several things are apparent.

    * Corbyn may not be the dealbreaker a lot of people seem to think he is. Labour were always going to win big, but, and increased majority on a decent turnout (for local elections) on a cold day when it was ****ing it down.

    * UKIP – The cons vote collapsing suggest at least an element of con voters voting tactically. This suggests that UKIP have reached their high water mark.

    The cons campaign on the liberal side of the coin on social issues, as do Labour (even more so under Corbyn). UKIP is the only main (ish) party that bucks the trend here.

    As a result, they now take some previous lab votes as well as con votes – but, also as a result, a chunk of the electorate are strongly opposed to them for the same reason (accusations of racism among other things).

    The libs lost the last bit of credibility they had voting for airstrikes. The cons can get away with it – in fact, it will probably help them, but, for the libs, it may well be seen as another betrayal of their principles.

    The greens are back down to pre green surge levels. Many left of centre/left wing voters that flirted with them are now in the ‘Corbyn’s labour’ camp. This will change if the plp get their way and oust him, but, until then, I don’t see them doing anything outside their couple of heartlands.

  32. @TOH

    “I would ban postal voting for all except those who are incapacitated in some way and have a medical certificate.”

    That seems a bit draconian .. that would have disenfanchised me at 3 of the the last 4 General Elections

  33. Just so people know (that don’t already of course)

    The Constituency of Oldham West & Royton is really only half of the Town of Oldham itself (the western fringe which just reaches into Oldham Town Centre)

    The rest of the constituency is actually made up of the two former mill towns of Royton (Population 25,000) and the larger town of Chadderton (Population 35,000) – Sadly not included in the constituency name but still a major player in the numbers game.

    And it’s ROYTON and NOT ROYSTON as some people on here keep calling it. – Royston is in Hertfordshire – Royton is in Lancashire!

  34. MARK

    I am baffled about the politics of the Lib Dems voting for strikes.

    They should just be thankful that it did not make a decisive difference to the outcome of the vote.

  35. I think you are right not to try and read much into this, intrigued as we all are by by-election results.

    There was a ready made narrative for any result:
    * Labour did badly – Corbyn is a liability
    * Labour did OK/well – Labour candidate is popular locally and seems like a more traditional labour candidate than a “new and kinder type of politics” choice.

    As it is we will all scratch our heads and search for some more meaningful signs.

  36. Postal votes could be done away with, largely, by introducing voting by internet from home. This would increase participation and level the playing field of differential turnout.

  37. Could it be that they simply thought it was the right thing to do? Difficult concept, of course.

  38. Good early afternoon everyone.

    Anthony: thank you for the new thread.

    Labour won in 2015 with a 9% increase in the vote, which was, of course, against the national trend.

    I think that the result, which was good news, of course, for Corbyn and Labour generally, suggests that the UK is quite polarized. Labour will need to do well outside the ‘heartlands’ and the 2016 Elections will be the test.

  39. Looking at Election Data’s Twitter feed, it looks as though he has not read Labour’s Social Media guidance. Serious egg on face moment.

  40. @David Colby

    “…but why can’t we be told how the postal voters voted?”

    The (Acting) Returning Officer is prohibited from counting the votes given on the postal ballot papers separately from the votes given on the ballot papers from the polling stations. They have to be mixed together first.

    Rule 45(1A) of the Parliamentary Elections Rules (contained in Schedule 1 of the RPA 1983) states that:

    The returning officer shall not count the votes given on any ballot papers until—
    (a) in the case of postal ballot papers, they have been mixed with the ballot papers from at least one ballot box, and
    (b) in the case of ballot papers from a ballot box, they have been mixed with the ballot papers from at least one other ballot box.

  41. @Sine Nomine
    “And it’s ROYTON and NOT ROYSTON as some people on here keep calling it. – Royston is in Hertfordshire – Royton is in Lancashire!”

    Royston Vasey is in Lancashire. Or a bleak part of the Pennines somewhere near Lancashire at least. That said, I suppose that if you’ll never leave you don’t need to know where you are.

    Maybe the result is down to UKIP’s election literature:


  42. @ Phil Haines

    Wrong … Royston Vasey is in Derbyshire not Lancashire .

    I’ll take my anorak off now :-)

  43. @ Phil Haines

    .. if you were a local person you would have known that all along

  44. It was filmed in Hadfield, except for the local shop scenes, which were filmed on the moors above Marsden (Colne Valley).

  45. As a matter of interest does anyone know the percentage of postal votes across the UK at the last General Election

  46. I just completed a YG poll that asked me whether the Oldham result was a “vote of confidence” in Corbyn.

  47. Before I retired ( early ) when chairing meetings I always got the line ” local services for local people” into my speel.

  48. @ James Morrison

    Are you a voter in Oldham West ?

    If not that sounds like a poll asking one group of people to speculate on the motives of a second group of people who actually voted.

    I’m not sure what that adds to the debate. It would be more useful to ask those who actually did vote.


    I suppose it keeps AW in beer tokens at least!

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