Labour has won the Oldham East and Saddleworth by-election with a majority of more than 3,500. Labour’s Debbie Abrahams held off the challenge of her Lib Dem opponent while the Conservatives’ vote fell by more than 7,000 as they limped in third. Turnout in the contest was considerably lower than in the general election, with 48% of registered voters cast their ballots compared with 61% in May.
Clegg said it was a “big ask” (whatever that means) to win the seat but their performance would “confound our critics” while the Tories said it was “not a great result”. Abrahams told activists that the result sent a clear message to David Cameron that “you have to listen, think again and change direction”. The by-election was called after a special court found ex-Labour minister Phil Woolas lied about his Lib Dem opponent in May’s poll.
Eight months ago, Labour won the seat by just 103 votes from the Lib Dems but this time it won a much more comfortable victory – finishing 3,558 votes ahead of its closest rivals. Although the Lib Dems failed to snatch the seat, their share of the vote actually increased by 0.3% to 32% from May. However, the Tories said it had been a “disappointing” night as their share of the vote fell by 13.6%.
The by-election is the first significant opportunity that voters have had to pass judgement on the policies of the coalition government and Ed Miliband’s performance as opposition leader. Shadow education secretary Andy Burnham told the BBC that the result was a “good reward” for Mr Miliband whom he said had “led from the front” on issues such as VAT and bankers’ bonuses.
The public had shown their anger over the coalition’s “broken promises”, he added. “Mr Cameron will be very worried when he sees these figures. There is real concern about the direction of travel of this Tory-led government. This is a wake-up call for David Cameron and Nick Clegg.”
For the Lib Dems, Norman Lamb said the party’s vote had held up, contrary to predictions that it would “collapse”, and it was a “very creditable result” now the party was in government. And party leader Nick Clegg, who visited the constituency three times to throw his weight behind the party’s candidate Elwyn Watkins, also suggested the party had done better than expected.
“This was a very hard-fought contest,” he said, arguing that the party had “brought the fight to Labour’s front door in a way that will have confounded our critics.” He added: “It was always going to be a big ask to take this seat from Labour, given the circumstances. We are undertaking some enormously difficult decisions because Labour left Britain’s economy in a mess and we are now forced to clean up after them.”
Conservative Party vice-chairman Michael Fallon acknowledged the party’s vote had been squeezed and said it had been a “difficult time” for a governing party to contest a by-election. “It is not a great result for us but it is not a great surprise either,” he added. Critics of the Conservative campaign complained that it lacked energy but Mr Fallon denied this was in any way due to the party leadership wanting to make life easier for their coalition partners. “I totally reject there was any strategic decision to soft pedal,” he said.
David Cowling, editor of the BBC’s Political Research Unit, said that while some Conservative voters had clearly voted tactically to try and secure a Lib Dem victory, this had clearly not compensated for the number of Lib Dems defecting to Labour.
May’s result was declared void by three judges and Mr Woolas barred from standing for public office, triggering the first by-election since the government was formed in May. All the main party leaders visited the constituency during the campaign, the first by-election to take place in January for more than 40 years. Ten candidates, in total, stood in the contest. UKIP came fourth with 2,029 votes, ahead of the BNP and the Green Party.
By-election result and share of the vote
Labour: 14,718 (42.1%)
Lib Dems: 11,160 (31.9%)
Conservatives: 4,481 (12.8%)
UKIP: 2,029 (5.8%)
BNP: 1,560 (4.5%)
Green Party: 530 (1.5%)
Monster Raving Loony Party: 145 (0.4%)
English Democrats: 144 (0.4%)
Pirate Party: 96 (0.2%)
Bus Pass Elvis Party: 67 (0.1%)