After Oldham: what does the result mean for the party’s targeting strategy?

by Stephen Tall on January 15, 2011

After all the anticipation and build-up, yesterday’s Oldham East and Saddleworth by-election was a bit of a damp squib.

Labour retained the seat with a decent and improved majority, as would be expected of the only major opposition party. The Lib Dems held our own, Elwyn Watkins nudging up the share of the vote he received in May 2010, but not surprisingly proving unable to break the 30-year run of governing parties not gaining at by-elections. And the Conservative vote collapsed after a half-hearted campaign, provoking a few squeals from activists and a shrug of indifference from their party leader.

Looking at the Lib Dem performance, the most striking feature is the party’s consistency in its share of the vote in this constituency:

    31.9% (2011 by-election)
    31.6% (2010)
    33.2% (2005)
    32.6% (2001)
    35.4% (1997)

Look at the figures in this way, and one conclusion is simply: nowt much has changed. However, what does seem clear is that there was a big shift in voters between parties since the last poll eight months ago, even allowing for the depressed turnout of a by-election (48%) compared with the general election (61%).

How vote-switching is affecting the Lib Dems

The general intuitive assumption is this: many Lib Dem voters have switched their support to Labour, or decided not to vote at all, but these were offset in Oldham (though not by enough) by previous Conservative voters switching to the Lib Dems.

In the main, the polling evidence backs this up — though, as Mike Smithson at PoliticalBetting.com has pointed out, it’s not quite that simple. For example, Populus found in their by-election poll that the Tories had lost 12% of their support direct to Labour since May, compared with 35% to the Lib Dems.

However, for the most part it does seem that what might be expected as a result of the Lib Dem / Conservative Coalition agreement — that centre-right voters are now more willing to lend their vote to the Lib Dems, and centre-left voters less likely — stands.

And this poses an interesting question for the Lib Dems’ targeting strategy at the next general election (the more so if the Alternative Vote referendum is approved) because the party has, generally, proved better at squeezing the Labour vote than it has at squeezing the Tory vote.

Eastleigh, Westmoreland and Newbury are three examples of seats where the Labour share of the vote has been whittled away to single figures in response to the strong Lib Dem challenge. Yet there were a number of Lib Dem / Labour marginals at the last general election where the unwillingness of Tory voters to switch to the Lib Dems left Labour holding on — for example, Islington South, Oxford East and Ashfield.

Can previous Tory voters now be persuaded to switch to the Lib Dems?

The question for our taregting strategy posed by the Oldham result, therefore, is clear enough: will it be possible to squeeze the Tory vote in those seats by enough to compensate for the loss of former Lib Dem voters drawn to Labour?

I realise there will be those who read that question, and whose instant knee-jerk response will be: so that means the Lib Dems ‘lurching to the right’ does it? Actually, I don’t think it does.

With few exceptions, I don’t think it’s the Lib Dems’ policy platform that has previously deterred voters who eventually choose the Tories from voting for us. I think Tory-inclined voters have been much more put off the Lib Dems by two key factors. First, they didn’t trust our competence to govern, they perceived us to be decent-minded amateurs, but not folk you’d want running the country. And secondly, they believed we’d inevitably side with Labour in the event of a hung parliament. Both of those perceptions will have been put to rest by the time of the next election.

There has been plenty of focus on the electoral threat to the Lib Dems as a result of the Coalition, and I’m not for one moment underestimating that. But there are opportunities, too. Oldham has shown how the electoral plates are shifting. The questions is: can we get them to shift in our direction?