With stories earlier in the week suggesting that the Oldham and Saddleworth by-election might be too close to call two new polls suggest a very different story. Both put Labour on course for a thumping victory giving Ed Miliband some breathing space and leaving Nick Clegg and the Liberal Democrats possibly facing the shape of things to come.
The polls published in the Sunday Telegraph today suggest that Debbie Abrahams, Labour’s candidate, is up on between 44% and 46% (up 12% to 14% on the general election) with the Lib Dems trailing on 27% to 29%. The Tories in third place have also seen support drop dramatically since the general election down 11% to 26%.
The irony for the Lib Dems is, of course, that they came within 103 votes of unseating Phil Woolas in the general election. That has to hurt. It is also the kind of by-election victory that in previous years would have on paper looked like a typical Lib Dem win in a seat where the party has done just that in years gone by. The Lib Dems won Oldham in a by-election back in 1995.
What’s interesting for Labour is that the Lib Dem vote has collapsed despite the Tories being accused of “soft pedalling” in their campaign in an attempt to help their coalition partners. David Cameron even seemed to forget the name of the Tory candidate earlier in the week (its Kashif Ali if you were wondering Dave).
While Cameron has denied any Coalition pact, the effect of the Tories putting less than 100% effort into the by-election has been no help whatsoever to Clegg. Both votes have sunk. Cameron, as the FT pointed, out wants to see the Lib Dems do well so that they remain a stable coalition partner. He should have blown harder on his coalition cake as that wish is not going to happen.
Instead it appears the voters are taking Oldham as a referendum on coalition policy to date. Yesterday, Miliband called on voters to do just that and to make known their anger about the increases in the rate of VAT and university tuition fees.
“For the first time since this Conservative-led government was formed voters will have their chance to pass judgment on David Cameron and Nick Clegg. They can send a message about the betrayal on tuition fees. They can show the Government what they feel about police cuts, here and across the country. And they can make clear their anger about an unfair VAT rise,” Miliband said.
The loss in Oldham also poses interesting questions for Clegg and Cameron further down the electoral road. What do they do as the election creeps around? Do they go for each other’s throats as some in both parties would like or do they fight as coalition partners and defend joint policies?
The loss of Oldham will also as the Observer points out rob Clegg and fellow supporters of the Alternate Vote of any momentum going into that referendum in June.
If the polls Oldham are true then it looks like the voting public is in no mood to do Clegg and his band of fellow travellers any favours and it follows that anyone hitching their wagon to that AV vote will suffer similar fallout. That includes Ed Miliband who is backing the misguided Yes to AV campaign.
How bad the fallout from the loss of the AV referendum will be exactly is going to be very interesting to see. The Observer speculates that Clegg could be toast with a leadership battle ensuing that could see the Lib Dems leave the coalition and force the Tories into a minority government. Do you need another reason not to back AV than that?