Oldham West – A Sign of Things to Come?

Jac Larner looks at what the Oldham by-election might tell us about the results of the Assembly elections.

The first by-election of this Parliament took place on December 3rd following the death of longstanding Oldham West and Royton Labour MP Michael Meacher. The result, a comfortable Labour hold, was ostensibly a contest between two parties; Labour and UKIP, who next do battle at the May 2016 devolved elections. So, what can we learn from last weeks’ by-election in the run up to the National Assembly for Wales (NAfW) elections?

What happens in Oldham, stays in Oldham

It is necessary to begin with a couple of disclaimers. Firstly, by-elections are strange beasts and it’s generally accepted that they offer little information regarding the rest of the country – they should be viewed more as an opportunity for the electorate to ‘punish’ the government of the day. In this sense, the Labour victory is no surprise, despite much of the media predicting a close race or even a UKIP upset. Whilst undoubtedly a good win for Labour, an increase in vote share since May of 7.3 points is in line with what we would expect of an opposition defending a seat (in the first five by-elections under Ed Miliband, the Labour vote share increased an average of 8.9 points). For the Conservatives, who saw a drop in vote share of 9.7 points, this is slightly more than would usually be expected for a governing party, but as negligible effort was put into the campaign, it was perhaps unsurprising.

Secondly, of the research carried out on NAfW elections, one thing is very clear: they do not function in a similar way to by-elections. Rather than act as a form of a protest vote – as suggested in the ‘second order election’ hypothesis – voters in Wales view the NAfW elections as an electoral arena distinct from Westminster, and generally decide how to vote using different criteria. It is therefore not advisable to apply to Wales a by-election result in an English constituency with a distinctive demographic makeup.

However, while NAfW elections are seen as distinct, they are not entirely separate. Certain UK-wide factors do play a significant role in affecting vote choice, in particular UK party leadership.

Leaders Matter

When it comes to vote choice, leaders matter. It can be said with some confidence that leadership perceptions play a significant role in voter choice at both general and devolved elections. UK-wide polling shows that perceptions of Jeremy Corbyn have been in decline since September, recently showing that 65% of May 2015 Labour voters believing he is doing ‘badly’ as leader. In their Oldham West campaign, it seemed that Labour may have realized this possible hindrance – their campaign focused heavily on the personality and record of candidate Jim McMahon. Corbyn was largely absent, visiting the constituency only once during the campaign and – unlike UKIP leader Nigel Farage – stayed away on polling day. No constituency polling was done in Oldham so we can’t be sure how Corbyn may have influenced voters, but his absence was conspicuous.

In Wales, a September Barometer poll actually showed that Corbyn was the most popular political leader in the UK for Welsh respondents. This popularity even appeared to give Labour a ‘bounce’ in the polls, but this seems to have petered out in the most recent barometer poll. The latest polling doesn’t include questions on leader ratings so, again, we don’t know how Corbyn’s leadership might have affected these results. If Welsh voters are in line with the rest of the UK with regards to attitudes to Corbyn however, Welsh Labour may feel a need to distinguish itself from the UK leadership, as in Oldham West. While this is a feat that Welsh Labour have success with in the past (“Clear Red Water” and all that) perceptions of Corbyn are likely to remain important due to low public recognition of Welsh Labour leader Carwyn Jones.

Turnout is key

Another interesting factor of the Oldham by-election was the relatively low turnout – 43%– compared to the general election – 66%. In Wales it is common for turnout at NAfW elections to be lower than General Elections. Research in the UK suggests that a lower turnout is likely to benefit the incumbent as the monetary, organisational and psychological advantages that come with incumbency keep opposition voters from turning out. Labour succeeded in getting out the vote in Oldham, and it will be interesting to see if other parties in Wales will be able to encourage supporters to turnout in high numbers in 2016. According to the latest barometer poll, UKIP and Plaid Cymru supporters are most determined to vote, followed by Labour, the Liberal Democrats, and finally the Conservatives.

UKIP- what a difference a few days makes

I have said little so far of UKIP, even though they arguably were the ‘other’ story of Oldham West. While disappointed with their performance in Oldham, they certainly will have been pleased with the latest barometer polling showing a further boost in support in Wales, in Westminster and devolved voting intentions. They will be further bolstered by the fact that they appear to have positioned themselves as  the main challenger to Labour in much of Northern England, as well as in areas of Wales (having come second to Labour in six constituency contests and third overall in the popular vote in May 2015). With a determined support base and their apparent ability to appeal to voters in former industrial areas UKIP could well be on their way to securing a historic NAfW election result.

Jac Larner is postgraduate researcher at the Wales Governance Centre at Cardiff University. His research seeks to understand the determinants of electoral choice in Wales. He tweets at @jaclarner.

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