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Ten Reflections on the Oldham East and Saddleworth by-election

By Jonathan Isaby

Just before 2am saw the result declared of the Oldham East and Saddleworth by-election, with the Labour candidate Debbie Abrahams winning with a majority of 3,558 over the Liberal Democrats. Conservative candidate Kashif Ali came third, with his share of the vote dropping to 12.8% (from 26.4% at the general election). Here are ten reflections on the result and Conservative campaign.

Kashif Ali campaign pic 1. Kashif Ali was a first-class candidate. It was hugely impressive that he came within 2,500 votes of winning the seat last May, with few local members on the ground and none of the benefits that were afforded to target seats. He was the only candidate from the three major parties to increase his vote share at the general election and with the right back-up from the party nationally, he could have been vying for second place at the by-election. Last night's result is not a reflection on him.

2. It was always unlikely that we could win the seat. It's usual for governing parties to fare badly in by-elections and for oppositions to gain from protest votes. A governing party has not gained a seat at a by-election since 1982. Despite that fantastic result at the general election, in Oldham we started with no voting intention records and there was always the danger that starting on paper in third place would result in a classic squeeze, which is why...

3. CCHQ should have acted quickly to make the running as soon as it was clear a by-election was on the cards. Given how close Kashif came last May, the party should have upped the ante in the seat as the likelihood of a by-election grew. And once the general election result was declared void (November 5th), the by-election machine which ensured victory in Crewe & Nantwich and Norwich North should have been cranked into action. Instead, as the Lib Dems made hay, the party did not formally re-select Kashif as candidate until mid-December - the last of the three main parties formally to pick their candidate. As Tim blogged before Christmas, it is the first fortnight that defines a by-election campaign and determines who wins and loses. During the first fortnight Labour and the Lib Dems were making the running and we were barely out of the blocks.

Lib Con rosette 4. Party activists felt let down that helping the Lib Dems was discussed at the highest echelons of the party. David Cameron wished the Liberal Democrats well. On Wednesday's Daily Politics, Philip Hammond allowed himself to be drawn into saying that he'd rather see a Lib Dem victory than a Labour victory. And there was of course the revelation on Christmas Eve that the Cabinet, reportedly at the prompting of Andrew Mitchell, discussed how to maximise the Liberal Democrats' chances of winning the by-election. These interventions all conveyed the message that the Conservative effort was half-hearted and that the some of the party's most senior figures would be comfortable with - or were even keen to work towards - a Lib Dem victory. Whilst the Coalition somewhat changes the dynamics of electoral politics, the Conservative Party should still be fighting contests competitively against the Lib Dems - as they will doubtless continue to do against us.

5. The Conservative campaign was the least visible of the three main parties. The figures in the Populus poll commissioned by Lord Ashcroft conducted on January 5th-6th speak for themselves. Asked if they had seen various parties' leaflets or candidates the Tories registered third in voter awareness:

Picture 19

6. By-elections need bodies on the ground and the party did not do enough to get them there. With inclement weather and Christmas holiday season, it was not the ideal time for a by-election campaign - although those were clearly equal handicaps for all parties. Whereas in previous by-elections - including those where the Conservatives began far more votes behind - MPs and candidates were whipped to make three campaign visits, there were no such instructions at this contest. I accept that some were put out on previous occasions at the tone of the orders that were issued, but here things went to the other extreme. Indeed, it wasn't until I pointed out on ConHome on the morning of December 17th that those on the candidates' list had not even been notified about it - let alone had it suggested that they needed to put in multiple appearances if they ever wanted a parliamentary career - that they were invited to lend a hand.

7. The Tory campaign lacked a buzz. I spent time in both Crewe & Nantwich and Norwich North during those by-elections and the atmosphere in Oldham for the two days I was there last week was, I'm afraid, just not comparable. The Conservative campaign simply lacked that sense of urgency and energy which I witnessed in those previous contests. I don't blame Darren Mott, Andrew Stephenson MP and those party staff billeted to Oldham for that - it stems from the attitude conveyed by the party leadership as discussed above.

8. Labour have pinpointed crime and justice issues as a vulnerability for the Conservatives. Those are the biggest political issues which Labour ran with in their literature and I would anticipate a continued onslaught on a national level over the coming months attacking "police cuts" and Ken Clarke's prisons policy.

9. But take heart from the polling about Labour's underlying weaknesses. Labour may have won the by-election, but the underlying statistics for them do not bode well. Again, as the Populus poll for Lord Ashcroft found, in two key determinants of long-term voting behaviour - party leader standing and economic trustworthiness - they were still losing in this constituency.

10. There will be more bloody noses at future by-elections, but the party must continue to put up a fight for every vote. The party succeeded in creating a fantastic by-election winning machine for those famous victories in Crewe in 2008 and Norwich in 2009. In particular we came to outclass the Lib Dems, formerly the past masters at snatching seats at by-elections. That machine should be kept in tact. Sure, from the position of being in government, these contests are going to be harder to fight, and we musn't be unrealistic about our chances of winning seats that are always going to be difficult - Barnsley Central springs to mind, for example. But we must ensure that we always give voters the opportunity to vote for a Conservative candidate who has the 100% support of the party.

> Paul writes this mornig that now it is time to end Rose Garden politics


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