Politics.co.uk Blog

Monday, 22 November 2010

What Lib Dem leaflets teach us about Oldham East and Saddleworth

The Lib Dems and Labour couldn't be behaving more differently in Oldham East and Saddleworth, which remains on track to be the coalition's first by-election test.

Phil Woolas, who is as disgraced an MP as he is a former one, is clinging on to the hope he might be able to overturn the election court's ruling kicking him out of the Commons. While he does so the local Labour party are keeping their heads down, hoping against hope that the government's unpopularity will hit the Lib Dems.

Their hopeful, Elwyn Watkins, is taking a different view. He's been bombarding his voters with leaflets, repeating the drown-them-under-an-avalanche-of-literature tactic which fell just 104 votes short of beating Woolas on May 6th.

These are the first Lib Dem election leaflets to defend the party in government – and they make for some interesting reading.

"After 13 years of Labour let-downs, the Liberal Democrats in government are delivering a fair deal for local people," one notes.

It says the link between pensions and earnings has been restored and points out an extra £2 billion has already been fixed on social care.

Another lists "just a few of the positive changes being introduced by the Lib Dems in government". These include "more money for schools", "action to get Britain working again" and "no tax on the first £10,000 you earn". There's not much of a mention of the VAT hike, or tuition fees, either. Instead the approach is a very general one.

The bulk of the leaflets try to ignore the national picture, however, instead focusing on what the Lib Dems are achieving on Oldham borough council. Local issues like better street lighting, tackling antisocial behaviour and even "a new leisure suite at Saddleworth pool" are trumpeted. "I depend on the same shops, hospitals and everyday necessities as everyone else here," Watkins writes. "I know how much this part of the world to offer [sic] – with the right support."

Watkins will become the Lib Dems' 58th MP if he wins the by-election, giving himself the chance of entering the Commons after most would have given up and walked away. His decision to take Woolas to court, for the first time in a century, has shaken up the electioneering rulebook. But Watkins doesn't mind – in fact he's making the most of the victory.

"Labour's shamed MP Woolas has let our area down," one headline proclaims. "Labour MP Phil Woolas lies to local people to get re-elected," says another. "Labour's Woolas brings shame on our area." You get the idea.

Interestingly, there are no claims that Watkins is an absolute paragon of virtue in response. Instead he contrasts himself with Woolas by pointing out he has "a record of fighting hard for local people". He's a "no-nonsense northerner who'll stand up for all of us". Equally, the leaflets' overall tone is one of generalised frustration against Labour – exactly the right approach, given we don't know who Watkins' opponent will be yet. "ANGER," one extra-orange leaflet blares out in massive letters – even if it adds, in smaller print underneath, "... as Labour's mess leaves Greater Manchester police facing cutbacks".

The biggest purpose of the leaflets, common to all of them, is the Lib Dems' infamous bar chart. This is always deployed when the party needs to demonstrate it is the only alternative to the incumbent. "Just 103 votes in it!" it says, above a bar chart showing the top two parties in the seat at the general election. Labour got 14,186 votes. The Lib Dems got 14,083. The logic is clear: if you want to oust Labour, you've only got one option.

In fact that's not quite accurate. In 2005 the Conservatives were a long way behind, taking 18.2% of the vote compared to 33.2% for the Lib Dem candidate and 41.4% for Woolas. In 2010 the incumbent stood on 31.9%, with Watkins on 31.6%. The Conservative candidate, Kashif Ali, took 26.4%.

The conclusion is clear: Oldham East and Saddleworth is a three-way marginal. And, as Watkins' uncompromising rhetoric shows, it's going to be a close fight. His early leaflets suggest he is aware of the danger voters' residual anger from a tough-fought campaign earlier this year poses now. The emphasis on fighting the Labour party generally – and ignoring the Conservative threat completely – is unlikely to shift even when the official campaign gets underway.

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