The Oldham East result wasn’t just good for Labour; it was spectacular. Here’s why. Even though the turnout was only 48.5% compared with 61% at the general election, Labour increased its vote from 14,100 in May 2010 to 14,700 yesterday – a 600 increase in the number of Labour’s votes within a much reduced electorate. Another way of looking at the figures is that Labour increased its majority from a wafer-thin 103 last May to 3,558 now. That isn’t just an unusually big increase in a by-election within such a short 8-month period – the real significance is that it’s as large a majority as Labour secured in the landslide election of 1997. But even that margin understates the real meaning of this by-election.
As everyone has recognised, this was the first opportunity for the electorate to pronounce a definitive judgement on the Tory-LibDem pact. They did so, big time. The Oldham East verdict has sent out a message resonating across the country in rejection of the Osborne spending cuts, the broken promises over tuition fees and the VAT hike, and the near-fatal collapse in trust in Nick Clegg and the LibDems. But the significance goes further even than that.
There is a key question looking at the figures. What happened to the Tory vote? Last May the Tories got 11,700 votes; yesterday they polled just 4,400 votes. Where did the missing 7,300 votes go? It’s possible a few hundred switched direct to Labour, and probably a small trickle went to UKIP and the BNP. Perhaps a small number of Tory voters decided to abstain this time, though they had no obvious motive to do so. That must leave at least 5,000 Tory votes unaccounted for. The only place they could have gone to was to shore up the tottering LibDem vote. That opens up a whole new perspective.
If these 5,000 or so Tory votes hadn’t switched to the LibDems, the latter vote would have collapsed, not to the ostensible total scored last night of 11,100, but to around just 6,000. The Lib-Dem vote would have more than halved – a scale of decline that, once recognised, must be close to lethal for Clegg. It may be argued that this analysis is exaggerated. But it isn’t – it fits exactly what the polls have been saying for some weeks, that the LibDem share of the national vote has tumbled from 18% in the general election to merely 8-9% now.
This ‘true’ picture of what happened in Oldham East then presents a scenario which is quite devastating for the Coalition. Labour increased its vote in both absolute and relative terms to 14,700. The LibDem vote collapsed ignominiously to around 6,000 and the Tory vote declined, though must less dramatically, to around 9,000-9,500. The ‘real’ Labour majority was therefore at least 5,200 – the biggest majority by far that Labour has ever achieved in this constituency.