Following the news that Phil Woolas has lost his seat of Oldham East and Saddleworth for knowingly lying about his opponent, Graeme Archer has proposed on Conservative Home that the Coalition should put up a joint candidate selected in an open primary. Much as I respect Graeme on this I disagree, although I should point out this is a cautious rather than an emphatic rejection.
The function of a by-election is to selection an MP to represent a constituency in parliament, at a General Election this selection – repeated across the country – amounts to a decision on who should form the government. The General Election this year demonstrated that decision may not be clear.
Speaking from the point of view of a Liberal Democrat, potentially giving up the race in this seat would be damaging – it plays directly to the idea that the Liberal Democrats have been subsumed into the Tories. Should the LibDem candidate win in the Open Primary they would, almost inevitably be seen as the Coalition rather than the LibDem candidate. The great risk that the LibDems face during the Coalition is that as a minority party in a coalition they will be electorally damaged at the next General Election – this is observed in coalitions across Europe.
Successfully contesting a three-way election would illustrate how by-elections under coalition work, something that has been demonstrated already in the Thirsk and Malton by-election held over the summer. Furthermore it would help maintain the separate identity of the Liberal Democrats. I can join the Tory Party whenever I want, but I don’t want to – it is so blinding obvious to party members that the merger of the two parties is undesirable that amongst party members it is not even worth talking about. The public, and commentators need convincing of this.
From the point of view of the Coalition the situation is less clear cut, offering a combined candidate does demonstrate the joint nature of the Coalition, and the opportunity to argue the Coalition’s joint platform. However, at this point in a Government it would be difficult to see the by-election as a true referendum on their joint record, there are better ways of doing this than a by-election in a single constituency under special circumstances.
From a more practical point of view, as Tory Radio points out, it is more than likely that a faction within the losing party of the Open Primary would put up their own candidate.
Rather playfully I will point out to Graeme that the Open Primary followed by election scheme contains elements of an ad hoc election by alternative vote in the sense that there are multiple rounds of voting with candidates dropping out at different stages.