Sunday, January 09, 2011


'Old and Sad' Contest set to be Intriguing Test for Coalition... and for Labour Too

The 1962 Orpingtpon by election is one of my earliest political memories. The plucky, but rather wet, Liberal, Eric Lubbock, rode a huge 30% swing to defeat the Tory and we all- or most of us I recall- cheered. Since then Liberals and their current incarnation, the Lib Dems, have licked their lips at by elections, anticipating a chance to feature, to be the recipient of a protest vote against a nasty uncaring government. However, as Andrew Rawnsley points out today, Thursday's Oldham and Saddleworth by election is the first time for aeons the party or its ancestors, have actually been in government and the situation they face is just a little bit different.

When it was first called, they seemed to think that they could fight in the traditional Liberal way: as the plucky outsider taking on one of the brutal, gnarled Goliaths... But how the byelection came about has been swiftly trumped by a more contemporary fact: the Lib Dems are a party of government. The hunters have become the hunted. The brilliant insurgents of past byelections are now the embattled defenders of a record.

Ranwsley argues that all three leaders have quite a bit at stake in the contest. Clegg because it is the first time the much anticipated collapse in his party's support as a result of joining the Tories, will be measured electorally. For Miliband, because his stewardship of Labour will also be tested. And for Cameron as his junior but vitally important ally's fate is integrally linked to that of the government he leads. He has done his best to stand back and allow Clegg's man a free run but as his own party was only a couple of thousand votes shy of the Labour winner last May, their will be jagged edges to feelings within his own party if Lib Dems win and within Lib Dems if they do not, especially if, disastrously, they are beaten into third place.

So what do the Polls say? Well, it's looking good for Labour at the moment. One poll gives it, Labour, 46, Lib Dems, 29, Tories 15. An ICM poll in another paper gave it as, 44, 27, 18. 28% o0f voters say they are switching to Labour, so unhappy were they over the breaking of the tuition fees pledge. A Labour victory, after their own man was found guilty of lying about his Lib Dem opponent, would be a pretty sorry way for the governmemt to start the new year.

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