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14 January 2011

What does the Oldham result mean for the coalition?

The Lib Dems hang on to their share of the vote – but at the cost of their coalition partner.

By Samira Shackle

Yesterday’s by-election was a strong win for Labour – that much is obvious. Debbie Abrahams’s share of the vote was not only up 10 points since the general election, it was also a bigger majority than Phil Woolas gained in 1997. But what does it mean for the coalition parties, whose joint share of the vote dropped from 58 per cent in May to just 44.7?

The shadow foreign secretary, Yvette Cooper, told the Today programme that it represented a “verdict” on the coalition: “[People] feel worried about their jobs; they feel very angry about VAT.”

She may have a point. Sunder Katwala notes that the swing from the joint Lib Dem/Conservatives to Labour was 11.8 per cent, similar to that shown in current opinion polls.

Indeed, it was the senior coalition partner that really took a hammering, finishing with 10 per cent less of the vote than it secured in May. The Conservative Party chairman, Sayeeda Warsi, tried to minimise this. “First of all, the turnout was low,” she said. “Secondly, this is a by-election, and thirdly we started this by-election in third place.”

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It is true that the Tories have not held this seat since 1995 – but the lacklustre campaign (during which David Cameron got the name of the Conservative candidate wrong) will have done nothing to help. While the matter is not enough in itself to cause a rebellion from the Tory right, it will certainly fuel discontent.

Meanwhile, Nick Clegg has been quick to declare that the result will “confound” critics by showing that the Liberal Democrats remain a “strong, united, independent party”. Indeed, although the Lib Dems lost by more than 3,500 votes (compared to just 103 last May), the fact that they did not face annihilation, as widely expected, will mean that it feels like a victory for them.

Over at the Guardian, Andrew Sparrow suggests that this result “show[s] that, with a strong local candidate, the party can hold its vote”. I’m not convinced. The circumstances in this by-election were exceptional, given the conspicuously half-hearted campaign fought by the Conservatives.

The Lib Dems certainly benefited from Tory losses, something that is unlikely to be replicated at the next general election. According to a Populus poll of the constituency, 34 per cent of Tory voters said they would switch to the Lib Dems, while Mike Smithson estimates that about two-thirds of their votes went to the party. Apart from anything else, the Lib Dems will be hard-pushed to retain a strong and independent identity over the course of four years.

We must be wary of drawing too many conclusions from a single by-election. Overall, it is very positive for Labour. Not only are there signs of a swing towards them, but a spotlight has been cast on the difficulties that will face the two coalition parties come the general election.