The coalition suffered a bloody nose in its first by-election Friday as Britains opposition Labour party romped home in Oldham East and Saddleworth in northern England.
Debbie Abrahams was declared the constituency’s new MP with a majority of 3, 558 – larger than the party secured in its 1997 landslide. Liberal Democrat leader Nick Clegg played down the significance of the defeat, blaming the government’s programme of painful spending cuts.
But the margin of Labour’s victory will heighten the pressure on the Deputy Prime Minister from his own rank-and-file, commentators said.
It came despite suggestions that British Prime Minister David Cameron tried to help out his coalition partner by ordering a lacklustre Conservative campaign. Labour leader Ed Miliband will also seize on the strong showing after what has been seen as a faltering start at the party’s helm.
The Opposition’s activists had voiced optimism after a mild afternoon in the constituency pushed turnout to a respectable 48.06 percent.
And by midnight it was clear that their candidate had triumphed, with the Lib Dems trying to limit damage by predicting a “decent second” for Elwyn Watkins.
The by-election was called after a special court declared last year’s contest void due to Labour victor Phil Woolas making false statements about Lib Dem opponent Watkins.
There had been expectations of a local backlash against Labour because of the circumstances, but the Lib Dems have slumped dramatically in the polls since entering the coalition and abandoning their pledge to oppose students tuition fee hikes.
Despite finishing just 103 votes behind Labour in last May’s general election, surveys last weekend found Watkins trailing by a massive 17 points.
In the event, he polled 11,160 votes to Abrahams’ 14,718. Conservative Kashif Ali came a distant third with 4,481. By contrast, at the 1997 general election Woolas won by a majority of 3,389 on much higher turnout of nearly 74 percent.
The Labor candidate said her victory was the “first step in a long journey” for her party, and branded coalition policies “reckless.”