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Greasy Pole: Nothing New In Old And Sad

Greasy Pole

Oldham and Saddleworth – or, for those living in the wrong part of it, Old and Sad – is a parliamentary constituency in Manchester with an electoral history such that it has accrued a reputation – again, depending on where someone might live in it – of renown or notoriety. Even before the recent by-election the votes revealed acute political entanglement compounded of poverty, crime, racism, riots… All three major parties have won the seat during the last 20 years and it provided the first case in almost a century in which the campaigning was brutal enough to cause an elected MP – Phil Woolas – to be turfed out, leading to the recent by-election. In 1995 an authentic Socialist – a member of the Socialist Party of Great Britain – stood. The 46 votes cast for him were a sensible measure of the electors’ readiness to misuse their political power by preferring the usual rag-bag of reformist sterility.

Poverty and Sickness
The constituency make-up is varied, from Saddleworth’s relative affluence to the social and racial mix of Oldham with its crowded terraces. Oldham is rated as 33rd among the country’s most deprived areas, with five of its wards among the worst 10 percent. The 1998 unemployment rate among ethnic minorities bore no relation to their proportionate presence. The grim link between poverty and sickness yields a death rate almost one third above the national average. From this noxious soil erupted the riots in May 2001 – the worst of their kind in the United Kingdom for fifteen years. In a history of consistently bitter electioneering 2010 was only the most recent example. Labour’s 1995 campaign was managed by Peter Mandelson, whose style was later excused by Woolas: “Peter may be a bastard but at least he’s our bastard.” The campaign of the then successful LibDem Chris Davies was guiltily excused by their future leader Charles Kennedy: “By-election hand-to hand electoral combat can throw up trenchant exchanges and tricky campaign behaviour. In days gone by I have experienced the occasional sharp intake of breath where some of my own side’s literature has been involved.”

Tory and LibDem
It might have been expected, as an opening to the Age of the New Politics, that the January by-election would have encouraged something fresh and novel from the candidates. Well, no. The Tory candidate, Oldham-born Kashif Ali, a “self-made” (however that is interpreted) local barrister signed a “clean politics” pledge but this excursion into stunning naiveté did not impress the other two principal candidates – or the electorate. His vote fell from 11773 in May, when he was a close third, to 4481, leaving him a long was behind the LibDem. There was a popular rumour that the Tory leadership had Ali running a quiet campaign, in case too high a vote for him would embarrass Nick Clegg: this was fiercely denied by the Tories, as if such back-stabbing would be foreign to all they stood for. LibDem Elwyn Watkins (whose polling day mail shot referred to him as just “Elwyn” without mentioning his party) presented himself to the people of Old and Sad as: “…unlike some career politicians (did he mean Cameron and Clegg?) I have worked in the real world…I was taught the value of hard work, discipline and sticking with it…I’ve been made redundant twice – I know what it’s like.” He had made enough money to bankroll his candidature – and the legal challenge to Woolas – in something called “turning factories round”, including four years as “business analyst and financial adviser” to a Saudi Arabian sheik. And what about the embarrassment of that pledge he signed to oppose the rise in tuition fees? “If I had been elected in May I too would have had to compromise. I would go with the coalition and vote for it.” Unable to benefit enough by Woolas’s fall, or perhaps to escape being tainted by his party’s reputation for broken promises, his vote in second place was down by some 3000.

Labour Choice
The Labour Party chose Debbie Abrahams, who in the Colne Valley constituency in May came third with a vote falling from 17536 to 14589. She has had a career as a health professional, including five years as chair of the Oldham Primary Care Trust – a job she resigned from in 2006, in protest at what the Labour government were doing to the NHS: “I have seen a steady stream of national policies introduced…which threaten these values and the future of a NHS that is equitable and free at the point for need… ”  was how she announced this at a large Keep A NHS Public rally. But this does not mean she cannot “compromise” as dourly as any LibDems; now she blankets whatever doubts she has about her party and its policies by meaningless drivel about it being “…important that the real issues and concerns of people in the borough are not lost during this election campaign…” Asked about Woolas, she merely said she felt sorry for him, that he had “paid the price for what he had done”.

The voters seem to have agreed with this, as the Labour vote held firm and Abrahams won and to have been angered by hearing from the Tories and LibDems – as they once heard from the Labour government – that the current problems of British capitalism are rooted in their slacking in superfluous jobs for high wages or living in luxurious homes on welfare benefits. Even if some of them may be among the 2000 local authority workers who will be sacked as the local authority make their expenditure cuts. There is nothing new in this – nothing new in the stress with the deprivation nor in the victims’ misguided response to it all as they divide their support among an unremarkably hopeless coalition of wanglers.

IVAN