Is this the most unusual by-election ever?

With Labour's 'dirty election' win overturned, Brian Brady reports from Oldham East and Saddleworth on fading Lib Dem hopes

For Elwyn Watkins, this Thursday's by-election should have been a coronation. The more likely prospect for the Liberal Democrat parliamentary candidate is dispiriting defeat.

It should have been very different. The Oldham East and Saddleworth by-election would not be happening this week if Mr Watkins had not taken Labour to an electoral court to have its general election victory overturned because of lies told in campaign literature in May.

But politics is not fair, as Mr Watkins found last week at a meeting in Denshaw village hall. "When I went into the [electoral] court that final day," he told the animated crowd of voters who wanted to know what he could do to improve the reputation of politicians, "Mr Justice Williams said I had done a great service to democracy."

The response from the throng on a bone-chilling night in the Pennines offered little hope of just deserts: the most popular comments were "get over it" and "move on".

Colleagues blamed a knot of Labour supporters for the hostility, but clearly the combative candidate cannot rely on the gratitude of voters to deliver a victory he believes was stolen from him in May. According to the bookmakers and private polling, his 103-vote defeat in a dirty election will translate into an even heavier loss on Thursday.

Beyond the party-political pantomime, the concerns of local people in a seat crippled by the decline of manufacturing industry are genuine and deep-seated. The unemployment rate in "Old & Sad" is 6.5 per cent – the 168th worst out of the UK's 650 constituencies – and the number of claimants doubled in the five years up to last May.

The VAT rise, schools, police and, above all, tuition fees, dominate the debate. One concerned mother complains that her daughter "doesn't want to be a plumber... doesn't want to learn how to make things. She wants to go to university and get a degree." The growing assumption, rightly or wrongly, is that this is much more difficult under the coalition. Over a cup of tea in Oldham town centre, Ron Forrester fretted that his daughter "might have her chance of going to university snatched away from her".

If Mr Watkins does fail, it will be because Britain and the Lib Dems have changed radically since the election. The Lib Dems are suddenly a party of government, not spirited outsiders, and the realities of coalition with the Conservatives has seen their poll ratings plummet to 11 per cent.

"This is not a referendum," Mr Watkins gamely maintains in response to suggestions that voters' views on the coalition will determine his fate.

It is not a view shared by the Lib Dems' opponents – or even many in the highest echelons of the party. Labour have conspicuously airbrushed out of their campaign any embarrassment caused by their former candidate Phil Woolas. Instead, the party has concentrated largely on national issues, particularly police cuts and the VAT rise. Their candidate, Debbie Abrahams, told voters concerned about cuts in public services that the by-election offers "a unique opportunity to send a clear message to this government".

For Mumtaz Ali, who lives among the terraced streets of Glodwick and has been unemployed for eight years, it is an opportunity he will grasp with both hands. "I voted Lib Dem," Mr Ali, 32, said. "First and last time. We have problems here, but they haven't tackled them. They look like they don't have any plans to make things better for people like us."

Among the problems faced by the constituency is the long-standing racial tension that exploded in brief race riots in 2001 and contributed to the leafleting row in 2010. The British National Party polled 5.7 per cent of the vote last May.

But the recognisable urban strife endured by the residents of Glodwick and other areas close to the centre of Oldham is far removed from the experience of the suburbs and villages elsewhere in the seat. In Denshaw, which lost its post office and shop, a local pub landlady warned of more to come. "Pubs are closing at a rate of knots," said Angela Fordham, of the Golden Fleece. "People just can't keep their heads above water. I want to know what the candidates are going to do for small businesses."

Nick Clegg and all his party heavyweights braved the snow last week to back Mr Watkins in the type of battle which, in opposition, the Lib Dems would often win. Mr Cameron also visited visited the constituency last week, engaging in a brisk spot of leafleting and a curious visit to a car-repair workshop in Oldham.

After a walkabout among overalled men working on car-wrecks, Mr Cameron offered a brusque approval of the Tory candidate, Kashif Ali. "He is a good candidate with a very good campaign, who lives locally and is very positive," Mr Cameron said.

Nevertheless, only six Conservative cabinet ministers have visited the constituency, and Tory MPs report little pressure to support the campaign, underlining suspicions that Tory HQ wants a Lib Dem victory.

"They have been lacklustre," a senior Lib Dem in the constituency observed last night. "They have the bodies in there, but they are not working it hard. I have seen the Tories when they think they have a chance of winning a seat, and they are voracious."

For Ed Miliband, visiting a third time yesterday, a win would be a positive response to those doubting his leadership; defeat, a disaster.

State of play: Lib Dems claim it's 'neck and neck' on eve of poll

David Cameron is careering towards a crushing defeat in his first by-election since entering No 10, opinion polls in the Oldham and Saddleworth seat suggested last night.

A Populus poll in The Sunday Telegraph put Labour ahead on 46 per cent, up 14 points since the general election. The Lib Dems, who yesterday claimed in a confidential briefing seen by The IoS to be "neck and neck", were on 29 per cent, down three points, and the Tories have slumped 11 points to just 15 per cent. An ICM survey in the Mail on Sunday had Labour on 44, Lib Dems on 27, and the Conservatives on 18.

More than a quarter of people said the biggest single factor influencing their voting intention was tuition fees.

The Labour MP Phil Woolas was stripped of the seat after last May's general election when a special electoral court ruled that he had lied about his opponent, the Liberal Democrat Elwyn Watkins, in election literature.

Matt Chorley and Brian Brady

PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
News
ebooksAn unforgettable anthology of contemporary reportage
Arts and Entertainment
Architect Frank Gehry is regarded by many as the most important architect of the modern era
arts + entsGehry has declared that 98 per cent of modern architecture is "s**t"
Sport
Luis Suarez and Lionel Messi during Barcelona training in August
footballPete Jenson co-ghost wrote Suarez’s autobiography and reveals how desperate he's been to return
Money
Welcome to tinsel town: retailers such as Selfridges will be Santa's little helpers this Christmas, working hard to persuade shoppers to stock up on gifts
news
Arts and Entertainment
Soul singer Sam Smith cleared up at the Mobo awards this week
newsSam Smith’s Mobo triumph is just the latest example of a trend
News
Laurence Easeman and Russell Brand
people
Sport
Fans of Dulwich Hamlet FC at their ground Champion Hill
footballFans are rejecting the £2,000 season tickets, officious stewarding, and airline-stadium sponsorship
News
Shami Chakrabarti
people
Arts and Entertainment
Benedict Cumberbatch has refused to deny his involvement in the upcoming new Star Wars film
filmBenedict Cumberbatch reignites Star Wars 7 rumours
Sport
football
News
news
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Maths Teacher

£110 - £200 per day: Randstad Education Leeds: Secondary Maths Teacher for spe...

Business Analyst - Surrey - Permanent - Up to £50k DOE

£40000 - £50000 Per Annum Excellent benefits: Clearwater People Solutions Ltd:...

***ASP.NET Developer - Cheshire - £35k - Permanent***

£30000 - £35000 Per Annum Excellent benefits: Clearwater People Solutions Ltd:...

***Solutions Architect*** - Brighton - £40k - Permanent

£35000 - £40000 Per Annum Excellent benefits: Clearwater People Solutions Ltd:...

Day In a Page

Wilko Johnson, now the bad news: musician splits with manager after police investigate assault claims

Wilko Johnson, now the bad news

Former Dr Feelgood splits with manager after police investigate assault claims
Mark Udall: The Democrat Senator with a fight on his hands ahead of the US midterm elections

Mark Udall: The Democrat Senator with a fight on his hands

The Senator for Colorado is for gay rights, for abortion rights – and in the Republicans’ sights as they threaten to take control of the Senate next month
New discoveries show more contact between far-flung prehistoric humans than had been thought

New discoveries show more contact between far-flung prehistoric humans than had been thought

Evidence found of contact between Easter Islanders and South America
Cerys Matthews reveals how her uncle taped 150 interviews for a biography of Dylan Thomas

Cerys Matthews on Dylan Thomas

The singer reveals how her uncle taped 150 interviews for a biography of the famous Welsh poet
DIY is not fun and we've finally realised this as a nation

Homebase closures: 'DIY is not fun'

Homebase has announced the closure of one in four of its stores. Nick Harding, who never did know his awl from his elbow, is glad to see the back of DIY
The Battle of the Five Armies: Air New Zealand releases new Hobbit-inspired in-flight video

Air New Zealand's wizard in-flight video

The airline has released a new Hobbit-inspired clip dubbed "The most epic safety video ever made"
Pumpkin spice is the flavour of the month - but can you stomach the sweetness?

Pumpkin spice is the flavour of the month

The combination of cinnamon, clove, nutmeg (and no actual pumpkin), now flavours everything from lattes to cream cheese in the US
11 best sonic skincare brushes

11 best sonic skincare brushes

Forget the flannel - take skincare to the next level by using your favourite cleanser with a sonic facial brush
Paul Scholes column: I'm not worried about Manchester United's defence - Chelsea test can be the making of Phil Jones and Marcos Rojo

Paul Scholes column

I'm not worried about Manchester United's defence - Chelsea test can be the making of Jones and Rojo
Frank Warren: Boxing has its problems but in all my time I've never seen a crooked fight

Frank Warren: Boxing has its problems but in all my time I've never seen a crooked fight

While other sports are stalked by corruption, we are an easy target for the critics
Jamie Roberts exclusive interview: 'I'm a man of my word – I'll stay in Paris'

Jamie Roberts: 'I'm a man of my word – I'll stay in Paris'

Wales centre says he’s not coming home but is looking to establish himself at Racing Métro
How could three tourists have been battered within an inch of their lives by a burglar in a plush London hotel?

A crime that reveals London's dark heart

How could three tourists have been battered within an inch of their lives by a burglar in a plush London hotel?
Meet 'Porridge' and 'Vampire': Chinese state TV is offering advice for citizens picking a Western moniker

Lost in translation: Western monikers

Chinese state TV is offering advice for citizens picking a Western moniker. Simon Usborne, who met a 'Porridge' and a 'Vampire' while in China, can see the problem
Handy hacks that make life easier: New book reveals how to rid your inbox of spam, protect your passwords and amplify your iPhone

Handy hacks that make life easier

New book reveals how to rid your email inbox of spam, protect your passwords and amplify your iPhone with a loo-roll
KidZania lets children try their hands at being a firefighter, doctor or factory worker for the day

KidZania: It's a small world

The new 'educational entertainment experience' in London's Shepherd's Bush will allow children to try out the jobs that are usually undertaken by adults, including firefighter, doctor or factory worker