Monday, January 10, 2011

Oldham East and Saddleworth: By-election showdown

Watchers of Britain's political scene are no doubt licking their lips at the prospects of the all the political drama about the occur this Thursday, specifically relating to the upcoming by-election in the Manchester-based constituency of Oldham East and Saddleworth, which, if the drama that triggered it is any indication, will be quite a lot of fun.

But, first a backgrounder. The entire by-election has been called because of weird set of circumstances that us provincials in Canada have never had the fortune to deal with. The issue arose during last year's May general election, which saw David Cameron's Conservative government form with the help of Nick Clegg's Lib Dems. OES was a fairly close riding between Labour incumbent Phil Woolas (14,186 votes/31.9%) and Lib Dem Elwyn Watkins (14,083/31.6%), and Conservative Kashif Ali (11,773/26.4%) (as such, this makes the riding a target for all three parties to keep). However, during the by-election, Woolas was releasing what was considered completely falsified information about Elwyn Watkins, essentially saying that "evil Islamist" groups that had been threatening Woolas had "endorsed" Watkins. Because this was a lie, High Court judges overturned the election results, Woolas was banned from running again, of course, a by-election has been called.

So, here we are. What is really interesting about this by-election is how unknown the result really will be. Consider the three main factors involved in it right now:

1. Woolas' lies and the entire fact that the voters are going to the polls again works against Labour
2. The unpopularity of the Lib Dems right now works against them
3. The Conservatives have never, until 2010, been much of a factor, and aren't expected to be this time either

The result of such a close riding where all three parties are currently at some sort of disadvantage with the electorate is completely up in the air. Labour's inherent advantage as the Opposition and its current high levels of support in polling is completely disrupted because of the local factor. Otherwise you'd expect an easy cakewalk for Milliband's party.

But, this is why we have nice polls to tell us what to think. One problem, of course, is that there's a bit of disagreement between pollsters over the current situation. Here's a rundown of polls so far:

ICM: 44% Lab - 27% Lib Dem - 18% Con
Populus: 46% Lab - 29% Lib Dem - 15% Con
Survation: 31% Lab - 30% Lib Dem - 6% Con

The first two - ICM and Populus - are two well-known pollsters that have a good track record nationally, while Survation is a newcomer, this being their first poll. One issue noteworthy with Survation is a high refusal rate and a high margin of error. However, despite those issues, the fact is that they don't show a necessarily different number from the other two, given that the Lib Dems are stuck around 30%, Labour is ahead, and the Conservatives are taking a hit on their support. In general, it's fallen back to pre-2010 numbers in the riding, which means a fairly strong Labour win, with the Lib Dems a strong second.

But that's no fun to predict, given how generalized it really is. So what if we combine all current polling, the current swings nationally, and fudge the 2010 numbers to see what we get? That's definitely fun!

So, if we combine all three OES-specific results, we get 40.3% Lab, 28.7% Lib Dem, and 13% Con. That works out to an increase of 8.4% for Lab, -2.9% for the Lib Dems, and -13.4% for the Cons. Keep this in mind.

Nationally, based on he 2010 results, the current results are 41% Lab, 38% Con, and 9% Lib Dem - or +11% Lab, +2% Con, and -15% Lib Dem.

Now, adding it all together, that's an average score of +9.7% for Labour, -7.7% Con, and -9.0% Lib Dems.

Or: 41.6% Lab, 22.6% Lib Dem, and 18.7% Con, with 17.1% going to other parties, which isn't crazy considering 10% went to other parties in 2010.

Now, I don't fully endorse these numbers given that it's tremendously hard to ever pin down the results for a specific riding. But, if you include all the trends we've seen recently in the UK, this is what you get. And it isn't too far off, considering how far back the Lib Dems have really come since 2010.

The consequences of the result will be huge. If Labour holds on to the riding, and expands their lead from 2010, then their momentum will be confirmed; if the Conservatives grab it, it means voters aren't as infatuated with Labour. What is more complicated is if the Lib Dems grab it, considering that it may not confirm momentum for them, but simply local factors allowing them a win past tarnished Labour.

Oh, and in case you were wondering, there are a lot of candidates right now, but here's who actually has a chance:


I look forward to Thursday.

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