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Nick Clegg is heckled by students during by-election walkabout

Nobody can say that Nick Clegg has given up. He braved students, grey skies, drizzle and temperatures close to freezing yesterday to go out without an overcoat or scarf and meet voters in the constituency holding the first political testing ground of 2011.

The Oldham East and Saddleworth by-election is just a week away, and if the Liberal Democrats were still an opposition party the pundits would be confidently predicting that they would walk away with it. Winning Parliamentary by-elections has traditionally been its strong suit. In this seat they came a very close second last May, only 103 votes behind Labour.

On his arrival a handful of protesters — believed to be students — pushed their way through Lib Dem supporters holding placards as Mr Clegg approached the supermarket entrance.

One young woman was bundled away quickly by security staff as she waved a home-made banner directly behind the Deputy Prime Minister.

Jennifer Leah made her way to the front of Mr Clegg's party in an attempt to hold up banners behind the him attacking his decision to renege on a promise not to increase student fees.

One banner read: ‘Nick Clegg shame on you, shame on you for turning blue.’

Mr Clegg — whose aides bustled the protesters out of the way — later claimed he was unaware that any incident surrounding him had taken place.

The Lib Dem by-election candidate, Elwyn Watkins, succeeded in gaining an unprecedented court ruling which annulled the May result because the Labour incumbent, Phil Woolas, lied about him in campaign literature.

The bad news for Mr Clegg, though, is that almost all the voters he spoke to in Oldham yesterday seemed reticent about saying they would vote Lib Dem.

The Deputy Prime Minister put on a brave face when asked about the poll of polls published in Tuesday's Independent, which showed his party on only 11% nationally, its worst showing in more than 20 years. “Polls go up and down,” he said, skirting quickly past the point that since May the polls have gone in only one direction for the Lib Dems — down.

One voter Mr Clegg encountered as he went door to door in Diggle, north of Oldham, was an elderly lady who voted Labour in May but will probably not do so again out of disgust. “I have met Phil Woolas. He was very pleasant,” she said. “But when I read that leaflet, I wasn't happy about it. I was appalled.”

But like other voters Mr Clegg spoke to, she was unwilling to commit when asked if she was going to vote Lib Dem. People here are not hostile to the idea of coalition Government, nor are they much interested in the tuition fees row, because there are no universities nearby.

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