We must take Oldham seriously

The Obelisk on Alderman's HillBy-elections caused by the death of the incumbent are always an occasion for sadness, so our first reaction to the passing of Michael Meacher, Labour MP for Oldham West and Royton, must be a sincere expression of sympathy to his family and friends. However, politics is politics, as Michael would have said himself, and therefore we have to face the fact that there will be a by-election before too long. Even if we should not campaign until after the funeral, that does not mean we should avoid thinking about the challenge ahead.

During the Coalition government the Liberal Democrat powers that be took what I believed to be a misguided decision to virtually ignore northern parliamentary by-elections, with predictably disastrous results. In a couple of cases there was, however, a tremendous surge towards UKIP, almost causing shock Labour defeats. We lost our deposits spectacularly, despite the hard efforts of by-election candidates and mainly local party support. The impression given to the wider public, however, was that in the North of England the LibDems are rubbish, even irrelevant. We must not allow that to happen again.

Traditionally, LibDems had done rather well in Oldham and nearby areas; indeed, Chris Davies won a famous by-election in Littleborough and Saddleworth in 1995. But in May this year, in Oldham West and Royton, the Liberal Democrat vote dropped through the floor, and UKIP shot up into second place. You can bet your bottom dollar that UKIP will throw everything they have at the forthcoming by-election.

Doubtless some will say that this is a seat that we cannot possibly win in the current climate, and therefore it is not worth spending money and campaigning time on. But I would thoroughly disagree with that conclusion. It is important that we use the by-election as a part of the LibDemFightback. Moreover, as the debate about Britain’s membership of the European Union hots up it is a great opportunity for us to tackle UKIP’s Europhobia head-on.

I hope that Tim Farron, as a fellow Lancastrian in origin, will appreciate how Oldham can be an opportunity, not a headache, and that the Party will also rally round.

* Jonathan Fryer is a former Chair of London Liberal Democrats and currently a member of the Party’s Federal Executive

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54 Comments

  • I agree . Publicly declaring we were fighting on so few fronts in May was a massive tactical mistake. It allowed our opponents to focus their forces on the few battlegrounds with bloody results for us. A similar strategy in 2020 would probably see the Party wiped out in the Commons.

  • Caron Lindsay Caron Lindsay 22nd Oct '15 - 9:39am

    While I understand the point that Jonathan is making, we do have much more limited resources than we had during the last Parliament. We have hugely important elections across all of Scotland, Wales and London coming up in 2016. If a by-election in a seat where we are not strong comes up outside of those areas, there is an argument that we spend as little money as we can on it. Yes, run a creative and energetic campaign, but let’s be realistic with our resources when there are bigger calls on them.

  • david thope 22nd Oct '15 - 9:58am

    The leadership didnt ignore northern by elections-we fought oldham and saddleworth very hard…

  • david thope 22nd Oct '15 - 9:59am

    Ian SWales-we have always won by targeting-so they always knew we did that..

  • Bill le Breton 22nd Oct '15 - 10:00am

    Caron, perhaps you should ask Dr Owen what being beaten by a green-eyed monster raving looney party candidate can do to the survival chances of a political party. This and any other similar by-election is an existential battle.

    So that is the strategic reason. And a tactical one, every by-election is a proving ground for building teams of campaigners and their techniques.

  • Yes Caron, but let’s test the Party mood with a by-election appeal then use the money raised rather than just assume there’s no appetite.

  • Many of our new members may not have been to a Parliamentary by election and may find it an interesting or even exciting experience. Bill is right to stress that by election campaigns can help develop teams and help people improve their skills.

  • tiredliberal 22nd Oct '15 - 10:29am

    Our aim here should be to hold our deposit. I don’t think people have realised just how bad things are at the moment. We’re still dropping in the polls, and we’ve got national elections we absolutely must prioritise. if we are to have strong bases to build on in Wales and Scotland going forward.

    We should run an energetic, and creative campaign, but primarily cheap. That is all. That is frankly all we’re capable off.

  • The party should focus its energy on more realistic targets. Corbyns army will storm Oldham and the Lib Dems may receive another battering.

  • Totally agree. We need to set a narrative. I can’t see us winning, but we can demonstrate a swing to us. We never quite made it into second in the good times, but we have Councillors and ran the Council as recently as 2010.

  • Tony Fitzpatrick 22nd Oct '15 - 12:07pm

    Write off Oldham and you write off the de-industrialised North. Yes, resources are limited but this is a bye-election so we should concentrate what we have. If nothing else it should give us a post general election benchmark.

  • Caron, others have hinted at it but I will be more direct. Your 100% wrong! Many here, Bill, Simon and Jonathan certainly remember the Vincent Hana bye election days when fighting all by elections hard irrespective of the seat added substantially to the greater good of the party. Indeed I suggest if you don’t fight Oldham very hard you will be damaging the Welsh, Scottish and local government elections next May. Further the situation in Greater Manchester is moving very quickly as the Combined Authority finds it’s feet . The Leader of Stockport as Vice Chair of the Combined Authority is now probably the most senior elected Liberal you have left and you have to do all you can to support her and maintain that toe hold for the party.

  • Lets get Mr Meacher buried first ?

  • Geoffrey Payne 22nd Oct '15 - 12:58pm

    As things stand the Liberal Democrats are invisible to the general public and most people do not know who our leader is, let alone have an opinion of him. As a result our opinion poll ratings continue to be rock bottom. The prospects for the Oldham by-election are not good either, and the prospects for by-elections in Richmond Park and Orkney and Shetland suggest we should hold back resources for by-elections that we can win.
    On the other hand, this will be the first opportunity for the party to campaign with a new leader that is not tainted so much by the Coalition government. Given that voters often like to do something different in a by-election we may find we suddenly have some momentum and do unexpectedly well – albeit we are unlikely to win. On top of that, new members will benefit from learning how to campaign. So there is a case to be made, it depends on our resources.

    And on the other point, based on the principle that you can lead a horse to water but you can’t make it drink, I think we were right to give a low priority to Parliamentary by-elections in the last Parliament. No amount of campaigning was going to help us much in those elections.

  • George Potter 22nd Oct '15 - 1:11pm

    I think it’s safe to say that a by-election can be fought relatively cheaply if there’s an appeal to party members for funds for it and if we campaign intelligently. For instance, instead of the Eastleigh approach of drowning voters in expensive leaflets, we could focus more on campaigning which uses (free) volunteers with minimal extra expense.

    We could focus a lot more on canvassing for instance and on running street stalls and organising public meetings with our candidate. Literature will obviously be necessary but lots of canvassing (with a single good piece of literature to give to voters when canvassing) is much cheaper than relying simply on paper to convey our message.

    We might even consider some more innovative questions to use on the doorstep rather than the usual “which way will you be voting?” For instance, we could ask “do you agree with Labour’s decision to abstain on Tory welfare cuts in the budget?” followed by “do you think Labour take their support in places like Oldham for granted?” and “do you think the Lib Dems are right to oppose cuts to tax credits for working families?” before we ask who people are planning on voting for.

  • Matt (Bristol) 22nd Oct '15 - 1:33pm

    Oldham’s local party should be the judge of this (and after the funeral), neither a bunch of people who, yes, dearly want a symbolic win but know nothing of the ground situation in detail, nor the central party whatever the concern to target as much as possible to save cash.

    Ideally if the local party can evidence to central party that there is a genuine opportunity that could be backed with investment and that would create a good positive narrative going into the wider campaigns that Caron mentions, they should be given the funds to go for it (or at least the support to pass the cap round the wider party and raise the funds from interested onlookers like ourselves).

    But almost none of us on here would be in a position to make that call.

  • paul barker 22nd Oct '15 - 2:02pm

    Parliamentary byelections arent common any more, we should fight each one seriously. This is likely to be a dull, low turnout contest & we wont be the main story but after our collapse here in May (vote share down by 4/5ths) we need to show some signs of recovery.

  • Andrew Martin 22nd Oct '15 - 2:03pm

    @George – the answers to VI become less reliable the more you use questions beforehand to sway their vote – remember the constituent polls?

  • Maurice Leeke 22nd Oct '15 - 2:07pm

    I went several times to help in the Oldham East by-election and I don’t see any reason not to help in Oldham West. Would anyone else like to come as well ?

  • I wonder how a Lib Dem Voice editor might respond if a LIb Dem MP had died and the SNP were making public postings on the internet about how they needed to take the by-election seriously……..

    Very poor judgement by the LDV editorial team

  • paul barker 22nd Oct '15 - 3:24pm

    @ Hywel. Labour will, on past performance , hold the Byelection as soon as they can – thats why we need to talk about it now. Byelection campaigns have been getting rarer & shorter over the last 2 decades as Party HQs get more control.

  • Dave Orbison 22nd Oct '15 - 3:40pm

    Hywel – I agree. Michael Meacher was, in my opinion, a class act. More importantly his constituents had a very strong loyalty to the man over 45 years which I think says all there is to say.

    It is less than 24 hours since news broke of his passing. I realise that the World still turns and yes a by-election will come around. But the speed of the posting of this article and the discussion about this ‘opportunity’ is a little distasteful I think.

  • I agree with the tenor of this article. We can’t keep on losing deposits it fits in with a media narrative that we are finished and these things are cyclical.
    Where I disagree with Caron is that the by-election will be before Christmas and surely members going on spending a weekend before xmas helping in Oldham isn’t going to make any difference.
    We’ve also got to get our new members enthused and a by-election is a really good way of doing this.
    In terms of cash the spending limit is £100k, if anything a proper effort will boost fundraising rather than costing us anything

  • Neil Sandison 22nd Oct '15 - 9:49pm

    By elections provide you national coverage for your flagship policies like housing and fighting the tories on tax credit cuts it also demonstrates that you have an active local party.no one can predict by elections but if it used well it could bolster your vote in winnable wards come next May. Go for it with gusto.

  • We need to hit this and every by-election hard.

    They will be seen as tests of the parties and new leaders and will greatly affect other election results.

    Caron – we have important elections throughout England, not just in London. The whole of the UK is voting in May,

  • Chris Rennard 23rd Oct '15 - 6:54am

    Jonathan is right. We cannot start ‘fighting back’ if we begin fighting parliamentary by-elections in this Parliament as we ended up not really fighting them in the last Parliament (eg Rochester over which I made some controversial comments). When we fought back after the debacle of the 1989 European elections, we fought ‘unwinnable’ by elections to get a respectable share of the vote (with modest financial resources, but more significantly determination and campaign skills) and ‘winnable’ by-elections (including those over which there much sceptism about my judgement about winnability) in order to win. Together with going back to basics in fighting local elections effectively, we did ‘fight back’ and recover. The party needs to look now at what we were doing in that 1989 – 92 period. The parliamentary by-election results from that Parliament can be found here: http://www.parliament.uk/documents/commons-information-office/fymp/m12.pdf

  • Julian Heather 23rd Oct '15 - 8:48am

    Well done, Jonathan, for getting the ball rolling. We are in a very tough place at the moment, and a well-run, fun parliamentary by-election campaign, with a good candidate, might be what we all need. Clearly it won’t be easy as it’s a Labour-facing seat, rather than a Tory-facing one. However it has to be a case of clawing ourselves back out of the electoral chasm, foothold by foothold., as there isn’t any easy way back.

    In London, since May 7th, we’ve had some very difficult by-elections in Labour-facing areas – Mayoral and council by-elections in Tower Hamlets, the two recent Haringey Council byelections in Wood Green, and the Southwark one in Camberwell and Peckham. But in each case we did increase our vote share, albeit only slightly. Because they were well-run and well-advertised campaigns, with really excellent local candidates, they succeeded in getting outsider in to help – and those helpers came back because they were fun campaigns where helpers were made to feel welcome.

    That’s what we have to do in Oldham West and Royton. We’ll all feel better for it !

  • Paul Kennedy 23rd Oct '15 - 8:55am

    Jonathan is right, Caron is wrong. I took teams up to Barnsley Central and Newark during the last Parliament, and I was ashamed of the party’s failure to fight these seats properly, or even to advertise the campaigns to members. We are a campaigning party or we are nothing, and our performance will be analysed win or lose and however hard we fight. It is a false economy to hold back in by-elections: campaigning is the only way we can recruit new members and attract more funding locally. Our reception on the door has been much more positive since May, and we should be exploiting that. And anyway isn’t there supposed to be a #LibDemFightback?

  • Alex Macfie 23rd Oct '15 - 9:19am

    Let’s save the Penines, not the pennies 🙂

  • Katerina Porter 23rd Oct '15 - 11:10am

    The advantage in a by-election is there is more chance of press coverage, which we are going to have trouble getting otherwise………………………..

  • Emma Longland 23rd Oct '15 - 11:24am

    Having listened to, and enjoyed, at least two speeches from Tim in which he said “we will fight for every election position that becomes available”, surely there is a risk that he looks undermined if we don’t put in a good showing?!? Assuming some voter or new organisation, somewhere, was paying attention to one or both of those speeches… And as a new member of the party, I second all those people saying “let’s see what support our now expanded membership can give” (whether financial or in person).
    Of course, Tim will also look undermined if we make the effort and the results show a backwards step; but personally I would rather we tried and failed than failed to try at all.

  • Emma Longland 23rd Oct '15 - 11:25am

    Sorry, *news organisation

  • Why didn’t this thread appear in the private members-only area instead? Everybody knows that politicians do political calculations, but they don’t have to do them in public before a distinguished former MP has been properly laid to rest.

  • Lib Dem HQ – set up an Oldham fund ASAP. I’ll contribute and I’m sure many members in Tatton (not too far away) will contribute too.

  • Denis Loretto 23rd Oct '15 - 2:19pm

    I am very much on the side of fighting but keeping expenses down. Surely enough voluntary effort and the facilities of Connect can be employed to put up a credible campaign. It is literature that costs money and I for one believe that the public are increasingly fed up with being assailed with leaflet after leaflet, often saying much the same thing.

  • Robert Eggleston 23rd Oct '15 - 4:01pm

    I live in West Sussex but will spend a weekend delivering in Oldham. We must rally to the flag at every opportunity.

  • David Faggiani 23rd Oct '15 - 5:09pm

    I live in South London (in South Camberwell, actually, fresh from the fight!) but I might pop up to Oldham for a bit of this. My Mum lives in South Manchester and my mate works in Oldham Market, and it’ll be interesting to get a taste of it, I’ve never been involved in a Parliamentary by-election before! We’ll see when they set it for….

  • Richard Underhill 23rd Oct '15 - 5:25pm

    Robert Eggleston 23rd Oct ’15 – 4:01pm Do you want to share a car?
    Simon Shaw 23rd Oct ’15 – 5:11pm Just as some people only work in local elections, so some people focus on parliamentary elections. At most of the elections i have been to there was someone signing in from Orkney & Shetland.

  • I agree with those who indicate that we will not give away free tactical analyses for each election. However, everyone is aware we will be coming and fighting in every election throughout UK. It’s not new info. It is expected. New members and our old brigade will be fighting together, side by side. All elections will see a rise in membership – from new and old sources. That is not tactical info. Where we fight, we gain. The gain will be seen this year, next year, in every year when we fight. 100,000 membership target is another win.

  • Fight it hard.

    Fight it cheap.

    Can be done.

    On the issue of respect for the late MP …

    There was a time nobody would think of a byelection until the funeral, at least. But recently incumbents have chosen to trigger byelections quickly e.g. in Crewe & Nantwich where the byelection was called (by Labour) before the deceased MP (Labour) had been buried.

  • nvelope2003 24th Oct '15 - 8:39pm

    It took 2 years for the Liberal Democrats to recover from the 1989 disaster and even then the share of the vote only increased in those constituencies where they had done well before. In those where they had not done well the share of the vote fell again. In recent local council by elections the same thing is happening though it is only 5 months since the May 2015 disaster. If there is no candidate at Oldham West there will be no story. If the Liberal Democrat candidate does badly the party will be ridiculed and humiliated and this will delay any real recovery. I thought by elections were for electing MPs not fun events.

  • Liberal Neil 28th Oct '15 - 11:36am

    Just to reiterate the point made by Simon Shaw – literature isn’t necessarily the major cost in a ‘serious’ by-election, depending on the format it can be quite cheap. Premises, kit and staffing are big costs. And if our aim is to not get completely squeezed we would have to aim to deliver quite a lot of literature just to be in the game. Obviously there is flexibility after that, but no-one should pretend that even just a decent showing is cheap.

  • Richard Underhill 30th Oct '15 - 6:19pm

    labour is is asking their potential candidates to apply this weekend, according to the Daily Telegraph, which is not an official Labour source. They go on to speculate about the Labour leader imposing a by-election candidate.

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