Clegg plays down Labour Oldham poll triumph
Nick Clegg today insisted the Liberal Democrats remained a "strong, united" party, despite failing to take Oldham East and Saddleworth in the first by-election test to face the coalition.
Labour extended its majority over the Lib Dems from just 103 votes at the general election last May to 3,558, with the Conservatives finishing a distant third.
But there was nevertheless clear relief among Lib Dems that the result was not worse after weeks of intense pressure on the party, which has seen its national opinion poll ratings fall dramatically.
Leaving his London home this morning, Mr Clegg insisted that it had been a "strong" showing by the party at what was a "challenging time" for the Conservative-Lib Dem coalition.
"I think the strong result in this by-election for the Liberal Democrats shows that whether we are in government or in opposition we remain a strong, united independent party whose values continue to attract support," he told reporters.
"I think it was a strong result given the circumstances in which the by-election was fought. It was a by-election held in unusual circumstances at a time when the Government is taking difficult decisions, of which we are a part.
"It was clear that it was going to be, and turned out to be, a fairly close race between us and Labour."
The victory was an important boost for Ed Miliband, who has been under fire for failing to make a stronger impact since taking over as Labour leader last September.
Shadow foreign secretary Yvette Cooper said voters had turned away from both coalition parties, reflecting public anger at the Government's policies.
"We are pleased with the result and it is a big change from the general election, a big increase in the majority," she told BBC Radio 4's Today programme.
"We saw a swing from both the Conservatives and the Liberal Democrats, so I do think it does reflect the anger that there is among voters about some of the things the Government is doing."
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 Mr Watkins.
There had been expectations of a local backlash against Labour, but the Lib Dems have slumped dramatically in the polls since entering the coalition and abandoning their pledge to oppose university tuition fee hikes.
In the event, Labour's Debbie Abrahams was a comfortable winner with 14,718 votes, ahead of the Lib Dems' Elywn Watkins with 11,160, and Tory Kashif Ali with 4,481.
Conservative Party chairman Baroness Warsi rejected claims that the party had fought a lacklustre campaign, saying that they had fallen victim to a classic, third party squeeze.
"If you look at by-elections over the last three decades, you will see that the party that starts in third place invariably has its vote there squeezed," she said.
"Of course our vote has been squeezed. We started off in third place and ended in third place."
Mrs Abrahams said her victory was the "first step in a long journey" for Labour, and branded coalition policies "reckless".
"The voters have spoken for the country. They have sent a clear message for those watching in Downing Street," she said.
"Mr Cameron, Mr Clegg, you may be watching but now you have to listen."
Shadow education secretary Andy Burnham, who oversaw the Labour campaign, contrasted Mr Miliband's decision to visit the constituency three times with Chancellor George Osborne's choice of festive holiday.
"While Ed was in the hills in Saddleworth, Tory ministers were on the skiing slopes in Klosters," he said.
"It's a good win for Ed and Labour but we are not getting carried away.
"What we have seen here is people are not happy with the way this Government is going about its business."
Lib Dem president Tim Farron insisted it had been a "good" and "massively reassuring" result.