Labour secured an emphatic victory in a crucial first test of its popularity under the leadership of Ed Miliband last night by winning the Oldham East and Saddleworth by-election.
In what was also the first electoral test of the Coalition, the Liberal Democrats staved off a feared meltdown in support but were still forced to concede defeat more than an hour before the result was announced, while the Tories saw their share of the vote collapse to finish way behind in third place.
Labour increased its lead over the Lib Dems from the general election turning a majority of 103 into a margin of more than 3,500 in a seat it had been widely predicted to win with ease. Mrs Abrahams said the result was the first step in a long journey under Mr Miliband and that voters had sent a clear message to the Coalition. "Mr Cameron, Mr Clegg, you may be watching but now you have to listen," she said.
Labour put in a better performance in the constituency than it did last May, increasing its vote by 10 per cent and doing better than it did in 1997.
Mrs Abraham's victory brings a welcome boost for the Labour leader. Mr Miliband has been facing criticism of having failed to harness mounting public anger over tuition fees, VAT, bankers' bonuses and the savage cuts in spending necessitated by the Coalition's aggressive deficit-reduction plan.
Defeat comes as a cruel reward for the Lib Dem candidate, Elwyn Watkins, a local businessman, who in normal political times might have expected to stroll into Parliament after losing narrowly last May on a 5.1 per cent swing. But his party's plummeting fortunes since it came into Government have seen its support plunge to the lowest level since 1988 with just 11 per cent of the national vote.
Liberal Democrat Party President Tim Farron said the result could be "cathartic" for his party. "We have not disappeared down the plug hole. We've been fine, for all the difficulties of the last eight months," he said.
It was Mr Watkins' dogged pursuit of Labour incumbent Phil Woolas through the courts over untrue allegations that the Liberal Democrat was courting Islamic extremists in a constituency with a large Muslim community – a claim that resulted in the former immigration minister becoming the first sitting MP to be removed by the courts for nearly a century.
But there was little cheer for David Cameron as the Conservative candidate, Kashif Ali, saw his share of the vote fall 13.6 per cent. The Shadow Education Secretary, Andy Burnham, hailed the result as a victory for Mr Miliband: "Mr Cameron will be very worried when he sees these figures," he said. Despite the appearance of Mr Cameron in the three-way marginal constituency – the first time a Prime Minister has campaigned in a by-election in 10 years – the Tories have faced claims they battled only half-heartedly after Cabinet level discussions over ways of preventing the Lib Dems being routed. The Tory campaign manager Andrew Stephenson pointed out that no government had gained ground in a by-election since the Falklands War. "We haven't been hammered tonight but our vote has been squeezed," he said.
OLDHAM EAST AND SADDLEWORTH
Debbie Abrahams (Lab) 14,718 (42.14%, +10.27%)
Elwyn Watkins (LD) 11,160 (31.95%, +0.32%)
Kashif Ali (C) 4,481 (12.83%, -13.62%)
Paul Nuttall (UKIP) 2,029 (5.81%, +1.95%)
Derek Adams (BNP) 1,560 (4.47%, -1.25%)
Peter Allen (Green) 530 (1.52%)
The Flying Brick (Loony) 145 (0.42%)
Stephen Morris (Eng Dem) 144 (0.41%)
Loz Kaye (Pirate) 96 (0.27%)
David Bishop (Bus-Pass Elvis) 67 (0.19%)
Lab maj 3,558 (10.19%)
4.98% swing LD to Lab
Electorate 72,788; Turnout 34,930 (47.99%, -13.19%)
: Lab maj 103 (0.23%) - Turnout 44,520 (61.18%)
Woolas (Lab) 14,186 (31.86%); Watkins (LD) 14,083 (31.63%); Ali (C) 11,773 (26.44%); Stott (BNP) 2,546 (5.72%); Bentley (UKIP) 1,720 (3.86%); Nazir (Ch P) 212 (0.48%)