By elections in Britain have not only become rarer – Members of Parliament tend to live longer these days, and are younger – but for the past decade have often been quite dull. That may all be set to change in the Labour marginal of Oldham East and Saddleworth in the North West English county of Lancashire. Here, the sitting MP, Phil Woolas, a former Home Office Minister in the last Government has just been barred from Parliament by the courts, as detailed in my last column. His attempts to get out the white vote in a highly sensitive multiracial constituency backfired badly, when his Liberal Democrat candidate Elwyn Watkins successfully argued that in what was essentially a ‘dog whistling’ exercise, he had lied. Phil Woolas denies this, and promises to appeal.
Over the weekend, the constituency was blitzed by the Liberal Democrats, who announced that the maligned Watkins would be their candidate in the by election. The leaflet also promised a tranche of Government investment projects for the constituency, including a major, post privatisation up-grade of the Post Office. The leaflet and its promises beg questions; the Liberal Democrats haven’t selected a candidate, so Lloyd must have received the endorsement of Deputy Prime Minister, Nick Clegg, in order to pronounce himself candidate. Which would also explain how the local Liberal Democrats feel able to make generous funding promises for the local area. Does the Prime Minister, David Cameron know that these promises have been made? One would have thought that he would prefer the Conservative candidate to make the announcements!
Oldham East and Saddleworth is a three way marginal, between Labour, the Liberal Democrats and the Conservatives, which makes for an even more interesting test of where the parties stand with the public. I gather that the Conservatives are determined to stand, because they believe that the unpopular Liberal Democrats will have their vote squeezed. Should this happen, Nick Clegg could be left standing on pretty shaky ground, which once again explains why he is so keen to be making promises to local people on behalf of the Coalition Government.
But then, thrown into the lively mix, I can reveal, is the plan by a former founder member of the old breakaway Social Democratic Party, Professor Stephen Haseler, to stand an anti coalition Liberal Democrat candidate. Haseler is a Professor of Government and Director of the Global Policy Institute, and thorn in the side of the Establishment. Haseler’s cunning plan should be taken very seriously by the Coalition, especially if he and his allies can find a strong local candidate to run. There are a number of local Liberal Democrats less than enamoured by the cuts agenda of the Coalition, and already there is talk of finding a high profile candidate to carry the banner for a more recognisable Liberal candidate, who local supporters with their long non conformist tradition might buy into. One name entering the frame is the former Leeds MP and lifelong true Liberal, Michael Meadowcroft. One way or another, should Haseler’s plan succeed, he will at the very least split the Liberal Democrat vote – and with it drive an early wedge into the Coalition.
Which leads us to the Labour Party, under the new leadership of Ed Miliband. This by election will be his first test. Both the Conservatives and the Liberal Democrats are already making much of the fact that there is a by election solely because of the actions of former Home Office Minister, Phil Woolas. But given the divisions that may open up in the Coalition, Labour must surely stand a good chance of holding the seat – but on the very strict proviso that Ed Miliband lays down the law to the old regime that still runs the party machine in London. Namely that there should be absolutely no attempt to ‘parachute’ a candidate in, or try and ‘fix’ the selection in anyway. Such self activities usually backfire badly, as they would do here.