All things considered, Labour’s victory in the Oldham and Saddleworth by-election is remarkable. To recount the facts that have been lost in the media as the contest inevitably became presented as a vote on the coalition, Phil Woolas was ejected from parliament last November for stoking racial tensions during the general election in a town that suffered race riots only a decade ago. In internal emails, his campaign team said that “if we don’t get the white folk angry he’s gone”, a plan they referred to as “shit or bust”.
Until his ejection Woolas only had a majority of 106, and if the Lib Dems were not in an increasingly hated government it would seem impossible that they would not win in a traditionally Liberal region. As it turned out, Labour achieved a better majority and share of the vote than not only last year, but 1997 as well. The coalition result was nothing short of a disaster; at the back of their minds, Lib Dems consoled by a better than expected result must be aware that it was at the cost of thousands of Tory tactical votes, a cannibalisation that incensed the Tory right.
But the first electoral test of the coalition not only underlines the obvious – that people are becoming increasingly hostile towards the coalition – but also, when Labour’s campaign is analysed, that the party has not changed a bit since the tragedy of Blair and the farce of Brown.
The thrust of their campaign in the seat was on law and order, with one leaflet almost entirely devoted to the subject, accusing the coalition being “guilty of going soft on crime” and, reminiscent of Woolas’ murky rhetoric, “guilty of gambling with public safety”. It made much of the “axing of 1,387 police officers” in Greater Manchester, while the sole photo of Ed Millband appeared tucked away in favour of two photos of candidate Debbie Abrahams in front of a poster saying “save our police”.
So much for Miliband’s new found progressive liberalism; this line of attack reeks of New Labour’s Whiggish authoritarianism. Police numbers tend to increase with elections, simply because scaremongering is a brutal and effective tactic. New Labour oversaw a 40% real terms increase in police investment between 1997 and 2007, despite the fact that there has never been any conclusive proof that increased police numbers reduces crime.
The secondary element in Labour’s campaign was tuition fees. Although nominally on the side of students, in reality Labour have no grounds to position themselves with the protestors; not only did they begin the privatisation of university by introducing fees in the first place, but they also propose to introduce the graduate tax, a second income tax attacked by the University and Colleges Union as a simple rebranding of debt, which could end up with teachers paying £17,271, nurses £7,824 and social workers £8,528 more than they do now for their respective courses.
Although Miliband pledged to go on some protests when he was elected, the commitment of the student marches seems to have changed his mind. Attempting to shoot down union militancy, he dismissed strikes as “a sign of failure”, and refused to support the right of workers to strike for political reasons – even though this was not a fight, or even a crisis, that workers started. If workers, the unemployed and youth don’t resist the cuts, who will? Certainly not the shadow cabinet, who recently agreed that labour had been “too slow” to commit itself to cuts after the recession; the opportunity to build a genuine case against the disintegration of welfare and public services was thrown out of the window with this pledge to prove that Labour are not “deficit deniers”, committing the party to New Labour’s fatal addiction: out-Torying the Tories.
Milliband was merely adjusting the message for the audience when he wrote in The Guardian that Labour “must be willing to change” in order to move on from the defeat last May. They have simply not changed; they can score easy victories by attacking the VAT increase, despite the fact that when in power, the cabinet that Miliband was part of twice attempted to increase it. Their law and order campaign in Oldham repeats the worst tendencies of Woolas, their campaigning on the tuition fees rise is disingenuous and hypocritical, and their pro-police attacks on student protestors “violence” will likely foreshadow attacks on the wider anti-cuts movement as it grows.
The left should therefore be wary of celebrating Labour victories, since although they suggest popular support is turning against the government, all of this is for nought if it simply returns New Labour. Without the party’s promised renaissance, a Miliband government would be more of the same, just as Thatcher has returned as Cameron’s spirit guide; “shit or bust” indeed.
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