Oldham East and Uphill Struggle

Tomorrow morning, in front of Oldham’s Civic Hall, Labour leader Ed Milliband and his newest backbench MP Debbie Abrahams are holding their victory press conference in the open air surrounded by shipped-in supporters of all shapes, sizes and religions.

“A new dawn has broken, has it not?” asks the younger Milliband, holding onto Debbie’s wrist with his left hand. (Her left hand is flat and by her side, as focus groups find female candidates doing the thumbs-up “too Palin”. She is permitted two (max) little waves of the hand, like the fattest bridesmaid at the wedding reception.)

“This result is a sensation that rocks the heart of the ConDemNation!” barks little Ed, to the choreographed delight of the invited crowd. By the end of the evening, Oldham East (and Saddleworth, “like attaching Coronation Street to Last of the Summer Wine” as described by Michael White) would be thankful for never being asked to vote on anything, again, ever.

All being right and reasoned with the world, the good burghers of Oldham East and Saddleworth will put Labour back with a handsome-ish majority. LibDem Elwyn Watkins is a damn fine candidate, and I would prefer him winning after running Phil Woolas so close (one-hundred-and-three votes) in 2010. My smart money is on Abrahams; this is Labour’s to lose, not the Liberal Democrats to lose.

Doubtlessly, the combined forces of the on-line Labour keyboard Corps. will hed asplode at 11pm when the Returning Officer takes to the stage. It would certainly wobble the Coalition, just nothing like as hard as Labour think it will. This is more “finger poking a cheesecake” than “hammer against a balloon”.

Ed, for one, has yet to strike a name for himself. Though his stance has advanced from “opposition for the sake of it”, he appears to have given up reminding his Shadow Cabinet colleagues of his Conference plea to ‘grow up’ and ‘do Opposition differently’. Labour MPs appear confused, still, over the best way to deal with Coalition Britain; pointing out divisions between the two partners is counter-productive. Of course there’s going to be differences, that’s what “coalition” means. On the deficit reduction plan, Labour have yet to define exactly what they would do differently (if we sidestep the inevitable reminders of Liam Byrne’s “there’s no money left” note, there’s Alistair Darling’s “cuts worse than Thatcher” quote whilst still Chancellor to bring to mind….).

I’m not as rabid pro-Coalition/anti-Labour as some notable interweb commentators appear to be, clearly frothing at the mouth at every whisper of Westminster gossip about early elections, splits and divisions, as though ‘new politics’ means the same tedious parlour games that turned off voters years ago. Labour, it has to be said however, are not addressing the nation as a “Party prepared”. In the fast-forward news agenda world of today, the Opposition are expected to be primed for action; more mature and reasoned opposition would stop chasing the spotlight and dictaphones (and, indeed, some members of the Government could do well to stop acting like newspaper commentators, too….)

Labour must be careful what they wish for. Unsettling the Coalition, even pressing for an early election, would be a disaster. Ed’s profile is negligible. His position on the student protests was shaky, uneasy, and even now his reputation amongst the growing numbers of youthful protesters and anti-cuts groups seems weakened and wary. An early election would underline the under-cooked centre of his strategy, splitting his internal coalition – Brownites and Blairites at opposite ends of the Shadow Cabinet table ready to pounce.

Opinion polls are two a penny at the moment, bringing Labour some cheer with their constant and growing lead. Annoyingly for Ed, the polls show much less obvious support for not making so many cuts so quickly. His “squeezed middle” has yet to permeate beyond the hacks in the Lobby. They are also within the margin of error; and after the 2010 election you can forget ‘uniform swing’, it no longer exists.

A snap election would doubtlessly “do” for the LibDems…but for Labour? They’re constant House of Commons “bantz” as they ridicule the Coalition without putting up answers themselves could backfire. An electorate who accept the need to keep tight hold of their pursestrings don’t want to hear about spend, spend, spend. An outright Tory majority is statistically more likely than an outright Labour win. Coalition is currently putting the brakes on the worst Conservative excesses (see how angry the 1922 Committee is getting with their allegations of ‘tickling the LibDem tummy’). Coalition is working, and Labour know deep down how realistic an outright Conservative victory really is.

Playing the long-game annoys MPs, especially now, when the news agenda demands quick-smart reactions and fast-forward changes. It would be far better for Labour to play the slow game, make the subtle and considered moves of the poker player. Ed may win in Oldham tonight, but lose the long-term battle. That’s the gamble at the foot of the Pennines. Whatever happens, it only matters what moves Labour makes next…

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