Oldham could be shape of things to come
As voters drifted towards polling stations on a damp winter’s night in Oldham East and Saddleworth, it was hard to find anyone bursting with good things to say about Britain’s Conservative-Liberal Democrat coalition government.
Even some Lib Dems, who came so close to beating Labour in this marginal seat in May, seemed to be voting out of a sense of duty rather than conviction, hoping to limit the shame of defeat to a Labour party still struggling to assert itself in opposition.
“I did vote for them, but I’m not happy with them,” said 59-year-old Lib Dem supporter Lorraine Marner.
The Lib Dems are in danger of losing their way — and perhaps chunks of their core support — in government.
Party aides insist it is better to be involved in making policy than not, in spite of the inevitable compromises, but the risk is that the Lib Dems emerge from the coalition in 2015 as the fall guys, shielding the larger Conservatives from the fall-out of five years of austerity.
There is also the possibility that sustained pressure on the Lib Dems might destabilise the coalition.
“I’m disappointed with the Lib Dems, to be honest — I think they’ve let people down and broken their promises,” said Ron Smith, a 51-year-old hospital worker from Oldham. “I don’t think they’ve got as much power as they think they have — they’re just their to take the blame.”
So-called broken promises — particularly reversals on university fees and the appropriate speed and depth of spending cuts — appear to have done the Lib Dems most damage in Oldham.
It is hard to see the party enjoying a renaissance any time soon.
But the Oldham byelection was not just about another bad week for the Lib Dems, who have seen their poll ratings dive since linking up with the Conservatives in government.
While the Conservatives did not appear to pull out all the stops for this by-election — perhaps hoping to help out their struggling Lib Dem allies — their own vote slumped by more than 7,000.
And a low turnout of 48 percent suggested many residents stayed away in protest.
It would be foolish to read too much in to a one-off vote so early on in a parliament, but if this result is mirrored in the forthcoming local government elections in May, alarm bells will start to ring for both the Conservatives and the Lib Dems.
After all, the government’s spending cuts are only just about to kick in properly. If voters are already unhappy, it is difficult to see how another four years of austerity will improve the mood.
Shortly before voting closed and just hours before Labour activists yelped for joy under the glitterball in Oldham town hall, that elusive sympathetic word for the coalition finally emerged.
“I couldn’t vote Labour,” said Pam Prendergast, a 52-year-old from Saddleworth who plumped for the Lib Dems. “I think we should give them a chance.”
The coalition, banking on a strong economic recovery to offset the pain of austerity, must be hoping that many more voters share her patience.