On Thursday 13 January, Labour retained the constituency of Oldham East and Saddleworth in a by-election that has been considered the first hurdle for the coalition government and Labour Party leader, Ed Miliband.
The unseating of Labour MP Phil Woolas following the discovery that he made false claims about his Liberal Democrat opponent during last May’s election campaign necessitated the by-election. Last year, Labour won by a narrow margin of only 103 votes. In the build-up to the by-election, the constituency became the focus of national political debate as the first challenge to the coalition government.
What is most significant about the result is Labour’s gain of more than ten per cent of the vote. Any precedent would indicate a safe Lib Dem victory; last May they lost by only 0.3 per cent of the vote. Labour faced a treacherous uphill battle due to the controversy caused by Phil Woolas’ ousting, but the resultant victory proved smoother sailing than anticipated.
Labour’s victory has been interpreted as both an indication of national discontent with the coalition and a sign of the Liberal Democrat’s waning popular appeal.
Over recent weeks Labour and Lib Dem heavyweights have been lending support to the campaign. Conservative backbenchers, on the other hand, have accused their party leadership of deliberate passivity in an attempt to aid their coalition partners. The Conservative co-chairman, Baroness Warsi, denied this, claiming that their loss was inevitable as they were already in third place. This has done nothing to quench the rumours of rising tensions within the party, which only increased after the loss of over half of their votes on Thursday.
The victory has been a boost to Ed Miliband, quashing fears within the Labour party that he was not a credible election winner. Labour’s candidate, Debbie Abrahams, emphasized the national scope of the by-election in her victory speech, attacking the coalition government by claiming that they had “let voters down” with “reckless policies”.
Miliband called the result a “wake-up call” for the coalition following eight months of controversial and often deeply unpopular policies on spending. The result has indicated a fall in the popularity of the Conservative side of the coalition, since the Lib Dem share of the vote increased, albeit slightly, by 0.3 per cent. It is too soon to use this result to determine how the public will feel four years from now, but there is no doubt that Labour will interpret this victory as an indication of the party’s renewed strength.