Lib Dems call by-election early

The Liberal Democrats will today bring forward the date of their first big electoral test since joining the Coalition Government.

The party is planning to take the highly unusual step officially calling the by-election in Phil Woolas' former seat of Oldham East and Saddleworth on January 13.

Normally it is up to the party who previously held the seat – in this case Labour - to call the election. But the Lib Dems will break with Parliamentary convention and call the election themselves.

The party’s decision means that campaigning for the election will take place over the quiet Christmas period. It also means that over 1200 students studying at the Huddersfield University campus in Oldham will still be on holiday when by-election takes place. The Lib Dems only need 103 more votes than in May to take the seat from Labour who said yesterday they will not to contest the move.

The by-election was ordered after two High Court judges ruled that Mr Woolas, a former immigration, broke election law with statements he made in a pamphlet and two newspapers distributed in the final stages of May’s election.

They found he had attacked his Liberal Democrat opponent's personal conduct and character with statements that he courted Muslim extremists who had advocated violence against the Labour MP.

They ordered a re-run of the election and banned him from standing as an MP for three years.

The by-election will be the first real test of how the coalition partners will conduct themselves in elections to Westminster. Both David Cameron and Nick Clegg are expected to visit the constituency during the campaign.

Labour have selected Debbie Abrahams as its candidate. Ms Abraham a former director of public health research at Liverpool university and is the former chair of Rochdale primary care trust. Elwyn Watkins, who brought the legal action against Mr Woolas, will again stand for the Liberal Democrats. Kashif Ali will again contest the seat for the Tories – in May he increased the party’s share of the vote by 8.7 per cent but may come under discreet pressure to not run too vigerous campaign to give the Lib Dems the best chance of taking the seat from Labour.