Two principal questions are preoccupying Conservative commentators about the result from Oldham East & Saddleworth by-election. First, was the Liberal Democrat vote share largely due to tactical voting by previous Conservative supporters? Second, would a bigger Conservative presence on the campaign trail have made any significant difference to the result? I decided to find out over the weekend by re-polling 500 of the voters who took part in my pre-election survey (which turned out to be very accurate). The answers to the questions are: yes, and almost certainly not.
The level of tactical voting is very clear. Only just over half (55%) of those who voted Liberal Democrat at the general election stayed with the party last Thursday; 29% went to Labour. Those who voted Conservative in 2010 were mainly responsible for keeping the Lib Dem share looking respectable: fewer than half of those who supported the Conservatives in May did so again at the by-election; a third of them voted for Elwyn Watkins this time.
Several pieces of evidence refute the idea that a lacklustre Conservative campaign caused Tory defections. Nearly half the electors decided how to vote as soon as they knew there would be a by-election, before the campaign started. Those who ended up voting Conservative were only marginally more likely (according to the pre-election poll) to have heard from our campaign than those who did not – indeed, Conservative voters were no more likely to have been visited by a Tory canvasser than voters as a whole.
Voters who had switched parties since the general election were asked why they had done so. By far the most common reason volunteered by former Conservatives was that the Tories could not win in the seat, or that the Liberal Democrats stood a better chance of beating Labour. Could a more visible Conservative campaign have changed that perception? To answer this question, we asked them where they had got the idea that the Lib Dems were the closest contenders. 43% said they had heard it on the news, and a further 22% said they just knew, or remembered the result of the general election. Most voters, then, knew that the Lib Dems were Labour’s main challengers. It is hard to see how even the most energetic Conservative campaign could have overcome such a widely known fact.
As I noted in my commentary on the pre-election poll, gaining this seat was never a real prospect for the Conservatives, as local Tory voters could see for themselves. That being the case, to mount a campaign on the scale of Crewe & Nantwich or Norwich North would have been wasteful. Using resources where they can be most effective is an essential for longer term political success, as I have argued since the 2005 general election. There will be campaigns in the remaining four years of this parliament that we can and must win – and you can only spend each pound once.