Sunday, 16 January 2011

Never glad confident morning again: Oldham East & The Liberal Zombies

Just after 2 a.m. on Friday, 14th January, returning officer Charlie Parker announced the result of the parliamentary by-election for Oldham East & Saddleworth constituency. Labour's Debbie Abrahams was declared elected, her majority over her Liberal Democrat opponent increased by a factor of over 35 times since the General Election last May and in percentage terms up from less than a quarter of one per cent to a far more comfortable 10.2% - the largest majority in the constituency for any party since its creation.

The Lib Dem vote increased very slightly in per centage terms - by 0.3%, while the big shift of the night was a substantial decline in the Conservative vote - down by over 13% to just 12.8% The right wing UK Independence Party was slightly up while the more extreme right BNP slid to lose its deposit. The Green Party, standing for the first time and with just two weeks of campaigning, but also with an impressive candidate, picked up 530 votes - while four others drew rather fewer between them.

The by-election is worthy of note for a couple of reasons - for one, it was called because the Labour MP who won the seat in May 2010 was ejected by an election court for lying about his Lib Dem opponent, the first instance of this in over a century. Secondly, it was the first significant vote on the Con-Lib Dem Coalition since the general election. It was also, untypically, a three-way marginal in 2010 - Labour were barely a hundred votes ahead of the Lib Dems, with the Conservatives just over two thousand behind. All three had something to play for.

But of course, the story was always going to be what happened to the Lib Dems - it was their complaint that triggered the election; and as it had been a target seat for them, after going into coalition with the Conservatives, backtracking on many of their election pledges and seeing their national opinion poll support slide from 24% to just 7% in some surveys, the big question was whether or not they stood a chance here. Would they win, or could they even be relegated to third place?

In the end, neither happened - their vote share stayed steady and they began and ended in second place. And, of course, their leader and his apparatchiks hastened to hail this as a "strong result" proving they remain a viable force, the third place Tories being the ones with something to worry about. This was a perfectly predictable response - somewhat less so has been the adoption of this rose-tinted analysis those Lib Dems who had previously expressed doubts about the Coalition. From former leader Menzies Campbell and former Party President Simon Hughes, to current President Tim Farron and Lib Dem activists and bloggers, the outcome has been portrayed not as a relief, but nearly as a triumph in these tough times. Full steam ahead for the Coalition these former, alleged doubters and dissidents now appear to be saying.

A 2 horse race, will one nag be off to the glue factory soon?
If sustained, this is a rush of incredibly bad judgement on their part - because, in line with the Lib Dems' desperate efforts to win over Conservative voters with their "it's a two horse race" literature (complete with standard LD misleading bar chart), a tactic nudged gently along by the Conservative leadership to help their flailing Coalition partners, several thousand Conservatives clearly defected to the Lib Dem candidate in a tactical vote. That was enough to shore up the Lib Dem vote share, but in absolute terms their vote total was down by three thousand, while Labour's vote share rose by 10% and smaller parties by 3%. Take away the very substantial but essentially tactical Tory vote, which the Lib Dems worked so hard for -  getting volunteers from all over the UK to phone voters in the constituency and laying on free travel from as far away as Edinburgh to lure activists to the seat - and the real story is the huge collapse of the real Lib Dem vote.

This is no surprise to most people - and frankly, who cares about the fate of the Lib Dems anyway? But for the country, the Lib-Dems-in-denial factor is worrying in that it removes what tiny chance there was that some of them just might constrain the worst of their leadership's toadying up to the right wing Conservative regime that, paradoxically, needs their support to survive.

Not that you would know the Tories need the Lib Dems to stay in Office - there is no distinctive Lib Dem narrative running through the Government. It is in effect a Conservative Government with Lib Dem support, not a Coalition. The Lib Dems of course insist they did not win the General Election - surely, but neither did the Conservatives. Yet what we see being implemented is pretty unalloyed Toryism. The tragedy of Oldham East is that Clegg seems now to be being given the green light from his party to push through yet more of the neoliberalism that has marked their first months in power - on spending cuts in education, health and social welfare, all wrapped up in rank monetarism. Vulnerable people will suffer badly under these essentially ideological initiatives, some of them greatly and terribly.

May Hell mend these wil o' the wisps. They truly are fair weather progressives - puffing up their alleged dissident principles when the polls look bad; delighted to feverishly shed them and hail their glorious leader at every faint glimmer of hope, however transient or delusional. If these last few gasps of opposition to untrammelled Conservative rule give up, it will mean the final extinction of the tattered remnants of a century and a half of social liberalism. They may hope that, if somehow the economic situation improves and people have short enough memories, their fortunes will rise again. Yet logic dictates otherwise - a recovery will benefit the Conservatives alone; a prolonged recession will benefit the progressive opposition. For the Lib Dems, bizarrely neutered by finally being in power, it will be more a long wait for the omnibus to oblivion, a zombie-like existence as their electoral base and local support shrivels and dies around their beleaguered parliamentary party.

Just as Hitler grasped at every last straw as his Bunker was surrounded, imagining ghost armies into existence, so Oldham represents for this party of chancers not so much light at the end of the tunnel as the dawn of the politically dead.
Liberal Zombies - Dying Here!

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