And so, following weeks of campaigning in the wind and snow, Labour have emerged victorious in the Oldham East & Saddleworth by-election called after their own MP was found unfit to hold public office.
Before entering into the obligatory tedious analysis, I would like to congratulate Debbie Abrahams on her victory. I hope she serves the constituency well, and I'm sure she'll be an improvement on her predecessor. I actually met her about four years ago at a Keep our NHS Public event in Manchester when I was an active health campaigner. She had just resigned from a well-paid position with her local PCT in protest at, I believe, government health policy. I had no idea she would become a Labour MP, but she struck me as decent and principled.
I would also like to congratulate Elwyn Watkins. No, not on his defeat - but in tirelessly pursuing electoral justice. Despite having little support from the federal party initially, Watkins put a great deal of effort (and money) into ensuring that Phil Woolas' dishonest tactics not only became public knowledge but that Woolas himself should be brought to trial for his actions. No-one expected Watkins' efforts to rid parliament of this peddler of intolerance to be successful. But they were, and all of us - including the Labour Party - should be grateful for that. There should be no place in British politics for those willing to stoop to such levels of dishonest and socially divisive manipulation.
On to the by-election result. The obvious thing to say is that Labour have done well while the Conservatives are the real losers. The Labour vote increased by 10% while the Tory vote collapsed - down by 14%. The Liberal Democrat share of the vote not only held up well, it marginally increased (by 0.4%) which, in the context of current difficulties, represents a huge achievement. It also puts paid to all those who predicted the Lib Dem vote would crumble and that voters would be deserting en masse.
Not only this - it confounds those who naively predicted that it would be the Lib Dems who would experience the effects of voter anger at the coalition. There have been many who have speculated that the Tories have been willing to use our party as "fall guys" or "human shields" for unpopular polices in the belief that we would suffer disproportionately at the polls. That theory has been blown to pieces - not only have the Conservatives suffered an unprecedented level of "squeezing" for a third-placed party in a by-election, but the folly of the "human shield" strategy (if it existed at all) is now apparent. It doesn't work; in many Tory-held constituencies or Tory target seats a drop in Lib Dem support would in all likelihood lead to a proportionate increase in the Labour vote - therefore the larger the reaction against the Lib Dems, the more likely it is that a Labour MP will be returned. Put simply, if Lib Dem support decreases while Labour support increases, this will hardly be of benefit to the Tories.
There is no doubt that the result will come as a huge disappointment to Elwyn Watkins and the team of volunteers who have worked so hard to take our message to the voters of Oldham East & Saddleworth. However, looking at the outcome from a realistic perspective, it would have been staggering if the Lib Dems were to have won the seat given recent events. As Nick Clegg made clear: "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. By 2015, I hope that the people of Oldham and Saddleworth will see, like everyone else in the country, that the difficult choices we made were the right ones and that Britain is in better shape than when we entered Government.”
What can we deduce from this result? Probably not a great deal. I don't accept for a minute that huge numbers of Tory voters simply switched to Labour. It is very possible that the Lib Dems lost some support to Labour, but gained votes from Tory supporters who saw voting Lib Dem as a means of keeping out Labour. All the same, predictions of crisis and electoral meltdown now seem very short of the mark.
The press have inevitably offered their own interpretation of the significance of the result. In relation to the position of the Nick Clegg and the Liberal Democrats, the Daily Telegraph offers some encouragement: "Clegg-ism is still a work in progress. Time, though, is on his side. He has four years to make and win these arguments. And he understands how bad policies equal bad politics in the long run...If Clegg takes care to remember he is running a marathon, not a sprint, then the third party may prove its worth." The Guardian goes further, and argues that the loss will actually boost the Lib Dems' position. Martin Kettle believes that "electoral weakness paradoxically increases the junior partner's bargaining position in policy negotiations. So [while] it is theoretically possible that the junior party may respond to current unpopularity by turning in on itself and even breaking into pro- and anti-coalition factions...it is rather more probable that the larger party will offer further policy concessions. It will do this in the hope of bolstering its partner's popular support without at the same time eating into that of its larger partner or provoking an unmanageable backlash in its own ranks. This is precisely the context of the current UK arguments on control orders and bankers' bonuses." And a much more plausible theory than the "human shield" hypothesis.
Peter Hoskin, writing for The Spectator, suggests that the size of Labour's majority should give Ed Miliband encouragement but is hardly evidence of a significant shift in public mood. I would concur with this, but not with his suggestion that the poor Tory vote proves that Cameron's party "was actively pushing down its vote". It was instead caused by a combination of tactical voting, the inevitable squeeze on third-placed parties in by-elections and voter dissatisfaction with the coalition - which on this occasion affected the Tories far more than it did the Lib Dems. The result will surely cause Cameron a few headaches, but causes more trouble for those Tories who were sufficiently deluded to think their party would be immune from voters' discomfort with coalition policy. Hopefully they will now wake up to the realities of coalition and political collaboration.
The Independent led with "Labour win in Oldham deals blow to Coalition". In a piece that read more like a party political broadcast on behalf of the Labour Party, Jonathan Brown claimed that the Lib Dems lost "in a seat [they] had been widely predicted to win with ease". This is more than overstretching the truth. I have read no newspaper in recent weeks, or seen any betting odds, that suggested this. On the contrary - without exception the press were of the view that we were set for a real trouncing. Even the most optimistic of Lib Dem activists, while hopeful, did not anticipate winning "with ease"! I also fail to see how this is a "blow" to the government. A disappointment maybe, but a sense of perspective is necessary. Labour has won a seat it already held; a seat that Watkins failed to gain even in the aftermath of "Cleggmania" with the Lib Dems flying high in the opinion polls. There was also evidence of tactical voting against Labour, something that should be of concern to Ed Miliband.
Most importantly, this result should serve to give Lib Dems heart. In spite of almost apocalyptic forecasts, our party exceeded most people's expectations. It might not have been the outcome we wanted, but nonetheless, it was creditable and provides breathing space for the 5th May elections. It was a good performance, if not a great one - but one that serves as a tonic for Nick Clegg and should provide his leadership with some credibility. Moreover, the result is a licence to be hopeful!
A final point - it was good not only to see that the BNP lost its deposit but also that another far-right group, the English Democrats, was outpolled by the Monster Raving Loony Party. Fantastic.