Having just done a day’s campaigning on the knocker in the Oldham East by-election, I was struck by two things. One is that Labour is beginning to pull away (on today’s showing I would predict a Labour victory of some 2,000-3,000), partly because its opponents are tying themselves in knots. The LibDems are hoist on their own petard – with tuition fees, VAT rise, contempt for Clegg, and lowest ever poll ratings all in quick recent succession. The Tories can’t make up their mind whether they want seriously to contest the seat or to try to nudge it towards the LibDems now that Clegg is a casualty in the intensive care ward. Cameron’s visit was farce: it was designed to show the Tories weren’t just pulling their punches, but it was so short and disconnected with anything relevant in Oldham that it simply reinforced that view. But the second matter that emerged strongly is more worrying. It’s honesty and trust.
I was struck by the degree of anger against the LibDems that came across, and hence the number of their previous voters who were all too ready to admit they were changing sides (though we’ll have to wait till Thursday – I’ve heard this sort of talk many times before). What is so serious for the Liberals is not that their leaders have been found to compromise to get and keep power – the electorate thinks this about all parties – but rather that their supporters genuinely believed that the Liberal party was different from the power-hungry grubbiness of the other two parties, and had a core of ethical decency which could be relied on to be more honest and trustworthy. The abrupt disabusing of this notion has come as a painful shock which will not go away quickly or easily.
What is so galling for the LibDems in this tight contest is that the Tories are more guilty on this score than they are. Who was it who said just before the election: “Any Cabinet Minister who comes to me and says ‘Here are my plans’ and they involve frontline reductions, they’ll be sent straight back to their department to go away and think again”? Cameron. Who said a month before the election: “Our plans don’t involve an increase in VAT”? Cameron. Who said: “We will stop top-down reorganisations of the NHS”? The coalition agreement. Who saidtwo months before the election: “I wouldn’t change child benefit, I wouldn’t means-test it, I don’t think that’s a good idea”? Cameron. Who said just before the election: ” I have never said we would scrap EMA. We won’t”? Michael Gove. And so on and so on. Labour will win Oldham East (a setback for the Tories, but a serious crisis for the LibDems), but it won’t win the country till a belief in honest politics revives.