The next series of The Thick of It is, apparently, some way off yet, but political comedy is thriving this year already if the responses – both journalistic and political – to the Oldham East and Saddleworth by-election are anything to go by. For the record, Labour won this seat in May by just 103 votes, with the Lib Dems coming second. Unfortunately, the Labour MP was the odious Phil Woolas whose musical instrument of choice is the dog whistle. Mr Woolas concocted a pack of outright lies about his Lib Dem opponent, who cried foul and won in the courts. Exit Mr Woolas, enter just about anyone who’s anyone in British politics onto the streets of Oldham (solid Labour) and neighbouring pretty villages (Lib Dem and Tory) in order to contest this first by-election since the election and thus, inevitably, political barometer – and in an interesting marginal that could have gone three ways to boot. You can see the actual results from last night here.
So, enough of the back-story. The first comedians off the blocks were the BBC’s own Lana Kuenssberg and Micheal Crick on Newsnight. Both were heard to say, on national television, that things were ‘pretty tight’ and Labour were nervous. Well, if winning by 10% is ‘tight’ I’d hate to think what these two consider a walkover; maybe even the 99.9% victories enjoyed by certain Arab dictators would struggle to qualify.
Next up were various abject senior Lib Dem politicians (Simon Hughes, for instance, becoming less credible by the day) trotting out the line that this was actually a pretty good result for them all things considered. They had confounded the national opinion polls which indicated an implosion in their vote and, actually, increased their share of the vote (by 0.3%). Do they expect anyone to seriously buy this? In what way is losing by 3558 votes last night when you lost by only 103 in May ‘good’? And this in a constituency where the sitting Labour MP was proved in court to have told outright lies in order to get elected! Pull the other one, Nick.
Moreover, the LD share of the vote only held up because it was pretty clear that many, many Tories voted tactically in order to help the Lib Dems and, possibly, snatch the seat from Labour. The Tory vote tanked 14% as a result. A few days ago there were two opinion polls by Populus and ICM showing Labour in mid-40s, LD in mid-20s, and Tories on 15-18%. Clearly these included Tories who had already tactically switched, and a few more must have taken the plunge last night. Moreover, polls published just before an election can change the result itself: seeing that the Lib Dems were in a clear second place may have persuaded more Tories to throw their lot in with the tactical voters. When you factor this in, the idea that the Lib Dems did reasonably well in Oldham becomes risible.
But laugh of the day went to Saeeda Warsi (Baroness, you know, and a Muslim woman Tory Vice Chair too). Goaded by John Humphreys on the Today programme, she flat-batted his suggestion that the Tories had deliberately soft-pedalled their campaign in order to help their fellow coalitionists by saying that David Cameron’s presence on the hustings – the first by a Tory Prime Minister at any byelection in history – proved otherwise. What!? Did I hear that correctly? Was she really suggesting that the personal intervention of the Prime Minister resulted in a 14% drop in the Tory vote share? Nice work, Dave. She also said that over 100 Tory MPs had come to campaign in the constituency, but this seems to suggest that the more people saw of the Tories, the less they liked what they saw. Worse still, John Humphreys was so monomaniacally fixated on getting Baroness Warsi to put her foot in it that he completely failed to notice that she had not only done so, but had begun digging a hole that was getting deeper all the time. Instead he kept blathering on about this, that and the other rather than pausing to press the Baroness on the gross absurdity of what she had just said. Time to put the old boy out to pasture, I think.
All this sophistry and convolution is classic Orwellian Newspeak, where you say the opposite of the truth: the Tories didn’t go soft to help their new chums in the coalition, when anyone can see that they clearly did, and the Lib Dems had did alright, when they clearly didn’t! It’s total farce, and Ed Miliband is probably laughing his head off.