Tuesday, 11 January 2011

In The Ghetto (of the parliamentary constituency of Oldham East & Saddleworth)

You may be aware that on Thursday in an unfashionable corner of North West England, a by-election is taking place in the marginal seat of Oldham East and Saddleworth.
By-elections are strange happenings; attracting the attention of most of the country onto one obscure place for the re-enactment of an event which recently took place simultaneously across the entire nation. Think Coptic Christian communities at Christmas. And by virtue of the fact that we all love elections and there are none on anywhere else, reality TV exempted, by-elections attract a vastly disproportionate amount of media and political attention than they would do if they had the decency to take place at the same time as the rest of them
Once thought of as the most Lancastrian part of Yorkshire and since subsumed into Greater Manchester, the rural setting of Saddleworth is now playing host to the only show in town; as media frantically postulate on how the public will react to the three major political parties in the post-coalition climate. Big guns from all parties have been strutting there stuff round former mill towns and up and down Pennine hills campaigning for their respective candidates. Except David Cameron of course, who having briefly visited the area has decided to keep a deliberately low profile in order, some suspect, to help the Liberal Democrat’s in their hopes of winning the former labour seat. Either that or he knows he’s on a hiding to nothing. Seeing so many familiar faces in an unfashionable unfamiliar setting is reminiscent of the rare occasions when the cast of some predictable old soap, totter off to Blackpool for some off-piste seaside shenanigans. It is somewhat fitting then that the search for an MP in  Oldham East and Saddleworth has not been without its own drama.  
Former Labour MP Phil Woolas had the seat which he won by just 103 votes last May formally annulled on bonfire night 2010, following a particularly despicable election campaign in which he distributed posters suggesting the Liberal Democrat candidate Elwyn Watkins was afraid to stand up to Islamic fundamentalists and planned “to give hundreds and thousands of illegal immigrants the right to stay”. The accompanying image consists of banner toting extremists forming the background to Woolas’ face with the caption: “Will you stand by Phil?” Why not just have him being crucified and do away with the subtleties altogether? And if you thought things couldn’t get any worse, in the seven months it took a judge to deem that Woolas’s poster contravened election rules, new Labour leader Ed Milliband, in what he assures us was not an ironic appointment, made Woolas Shadow Immigration Minister, citing that: “such proficiency in racial propaganda and scaremongering had not been seen since the heady days of Enoch Powell, MBE” (allegedly).
Sadly, the potential to exploit the infamous racial tensions of the area for personal gain will again be a factor in the by-election.
The British National Party, The English Democrats and UKIP will all stand in Oldham on predictably immigration-fixated, Eurosceptic, one dimensional tickets. Also standing will be The Pirate Party, "a political party of the digital age", whose primary interest is the legalisation of file sharing and change of the copyright laws and whilst by no means as sinister or as pernicious as their aforementioned competitors; it is noticeable that all these parties share a tendency to campaign on a single issue.   
Comparatively speaking then, the Bus Pass Elvis party’s well rounded and progressive manifesto acts as something of an antidote to divisive racial politics.  Few sane minded people would disagree with proposals to abolish Coronation Street and Eastenders, which, in the words of party leader and candidate Dave Bishop: “are depressing voters with their gloomy plots and constant whinging”, or the quite sensible commitment to “stop David Cameron axing the bus pass”. Admittedly, their instruction to voters who are “fed up with heating bills”, to “knit themselves a cardigan and shrrup moaning!” doesn’t sugar coat the pill in its delivery, but you can’t really disagree with the sentiment.  
The Bus Pass Elvis party is just one of the many guises of Dave Bishop’s Church of the Militant Elvis: “a semi-religious party which believes that Elvis is still alive and living in an old people’s home on the Lincolnshire coast somewhere between Skegness and Mablethorpe”. Whilst the party’s website fails to dispel the suspicion that this is the private project of a slightly eccentric, (if we’re being polite), Elvis fan, and now parliamentary candidate Dave Bishop; the rich tapestry of names Bishop christens his one man band are worthy of ballots. Even discounting the previously mentioned Bus Pass Elvis and Church of the Militant Elvis, the party still lists as its other monikers as; Elvis Turns Green Party, Grumpy Old Elvis Party, Elvis & The Yeti Himalayan Preservation Party, Militant Elvis Anti-Tesco Popular Front; and the quite brilliant, Elvis Defence League.  
Despite its many incarnations however, the clever money is on Labour to secure Oldham East and Saddleworth by a greater margin than last time. Perhaps the real losers then are the Monster Raving Loony Party, (also competing); who it would seem can no longer rely on the vote of people who tick the box next to the party with the daftest name on the ballet paper. Saying that though, it would seem that those who tend to choose their political party based on name alone are also those least likely to vote, if the most recent of the paltry 13 comments* on the party’s website, is anything to go by:
“I live in Saddleworth, and I’ll tell you what. IF I get back from work in time, and IF I can be bothered getting up off my fat arse, I’ll be voting Bus Pass Elvis. Oh yes”
* Yes, I am well aware of the irony here thanks.

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