Labour’s Debbie Abrahams is the new MP for Oldham East and Saddleworth. She won the by-election with a comfortable majority of 3,558 over the Liberal Democrat candidate Elwyn Watkins. The Conservative Kashif Ali was well beaten in third.
Although Labour had been strong favourites to win the poll, the margin of victory was notably more than had been expected. Also better than predicted was the turnout, which was a respectable 48% despite the drizzly weather which hung around all day.
Taking the podium at the Queen Elizabeth Hall in Oldham for her first speech as an MP, Mrs Abrahams said her victory marked “the first step on a long journey ahead” for Labour.
She also criticised both coalition parties, saying the voters of our area had sent “a clear message” to the Westminster government: “Mr Cameron and Mr Clegg, you may be watching but now you have to listen.”
She particularly focused on the coalition’s policies for young people, attacking the increase in tuition fees and the decision to scrap the Educational Maintenance Allowance: “You are making the wrong decisions for the long-term future of our country. Tories and Lib Dems are happy to kick away the ladders which helped millions of young people climb to a better future.”
Later, she told Saddleworth News she was “absolutely delighted” adding: “I think people did want to send a strong message back to this government. They really are very angry about the broken promises. And although they’re national policies they’re having local effects and that’s what I think this government needs to be mindful of. So we want to make sure we’re providing a strong opposition to these very unfair policies.”
When asked what her early priorities as our MP might be, she replied: “Again it’s making sure that the interests of all the borough are represented in Westminster.”
Mrs Abrahams repeatedly referred to the people of “this borough” rather than “Oldham” and when I asked whether she was just going out of her way to be diplomatic to Saddleworth folks, she said: “Oldham East and Saddleworth, I’m here to represent all of the issues and needs of the constituency.” She also revealed she’ll be going down to Westminster early next week.
As for the vanquished, Mr Watkins put on a brave face despite what must have been a desperately disappointing night for him. He forced the by-election after winning a legal challenge over his narrow defeat to Phil Woolas in the general election, successfully arguing that Mr Woolas had broken the law by knowingly telling lies about him.
Speaking to Saddleworth News, Mr Watkins commented: “Obviously I’m disappointed. But this is democracy, and in a democracy you have a contest, and people have a democratic process of deciding who they want to be their MP.”
Reflecting on the Woolas case, he said: “I took the legal challenge on because I always said I’d rather fight and lose and walk away, and I got vindicated. So nobody can ever take that away from me. I never expected to win that, and so this by-election effectively was an add-on to that.”
When asked whether he was always up against it given the criticism the Lib Dems have suffered since joining the coalition, he replied: “When you’re in opposition, you can promise what you want and you can campaign against everything that’s nasty, and campaign in favour of everything that’s nice. That’s an easy situation. When you’re in government you have to be accountable for the government’s decisions.”
Mr Watkins, who lives in Delph, wouldn’t be drawn yet on what the future holds for him: “It’s a bit early to say, but I love Delph, I call it the fantasy village. I love the whole area. And I shall obviously be sitting down and having a bit of a think about what’s going to be happening in the future.”
If Mr Watkins was left disappointed, so too was Mr Ali, who could only poll 4,481 votes, well under half what he managed at the general election. He said he took full personal responsibility for the result, and refused to blame the allegedly lacklustre support he received from the national Conservative party.
He told Saddleworth News that the “context of by-elections” was the main factor: “We all know three things happen. Governing parties do badly and don’t win. Opposition parties do well, and the Labour party have done well. And thirdly, parties in third position get squeezed quite heavily, and we have been.”
Mr Ali went on: “Maybe I didn’t do enough to persuade voters to vote for me as a candidate who was local, who knows? But I want to take this opportunity to wish Debbie Abrahams well on a fantastic result. I’ve always found her civil and courteous, she’s done well and I wish her the best.”
When asked whether he was at all disappointed with the level of support he received from national Conservatives, he replied: “No, I think this was more a press story than reality. And the reality was the Prime Minister broke with convention to come here. The Foreign Secretary came here. The party Chairman spent a lot of time here, and so on. We had a lot of support, and I’m very proud of the campaign they ran.”
On his own future, Mr Ali said: “Tonight’s not the night for speculating about the future and my plans. But what I will always be is an advocate for Oldham people, and play my bit in whatever context I can, to try to make Oldham East and Saddleworth a better place.”
UKIP’s Paul Nuttall just managed to save his deposit in fourth place, while the BNP’s Derek Adams lost his deposit in fifth.
The full result was:
Debbie Abrahams (Labour) 14,718
Elwyn Watkins (Liberal Democrat) 11,160
Kashif Ali (Conservative) 4,481
Paul Nuttall (UKIP) 2,029
Derek Adams (BNP) 1,560
Peter Allen (Green) 530
Nick “The Flying Brick” Delves (Loony) 145
Stephen Morris (English Democrat) 144
Loz Kaye (Pirate Party UK) 98
David Bishop (Bus Pass Elvis Party) 67