Oldham date 'will deprive students of vote'

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Indy Politics

Labour leader Ed Miliband accused the Liberal Democrats today of depriving thousands of students of a vote in a key by-election by calling it during the Christmas holidays.

In a break from parliamentary convention, the Lib Dems moved the Commons writ for a January 13 vote in Oldham East and Saddleworth to replace expelled Labour ex-minister Phil Woolas.

Labour, which would usually be responsible for naming the date as the previous holder of the seat, had wanted to hold off to exploit growing public dissent about coalition policies.

Mr Miliband, making an early campaigning foray to the north west seat, joked that the coalition parties had deprived local people of a "politician-free Christmas".

But he also suggested they had effectively "disenfranchised" people who study in the town but live elsewhere in the country.

"We wanted a politician-free Christmas for the people of Oldham East and Saddleworth but the Liberal Democrats and Conservatives have denied them that I fear," he told Sky News.

"Also there is a looming issue emerging...because students won't be back to vote by the time of the by-election being called and there is a real concern here about the disenfranchisement of potentially thousands of students.

"Vince Cable is here today - not meeting students you may not be surprised to learn. I think it is very, very important that we make it as possible as we can for those students to vote in this important by-election."

The Liberal Democrats have borne the brunt of student anger over tuition fees after some of its MPs broke a pre-election pledge by voting for a rise to up to £9,000 a year.

The constituency has no MP at present after May's general election result was declared void by a specially-convened election court in November in the first such ruling for 99 years.

Former immigration minister Mr Woolas was found guilty of deliberately lying about Lib Dem rival Elwyn Watkins and failed to overturn the decision in the High Court,

It is understood that Prime Minister David Cameron will be joining the Tory campaign in the constituency.

Local voters would be "the first people to make a judgment about whether the coalition Government is going too far and too fast in their cuts", Mr Miliband said.

"I think they are. That's bad for jobs here in Oldham and it's also bad for services, like the cuts in policing we are going to be seeing.

"We are getting a good response on the doorsteps; we have an excellent candidate...and we are going to be fighting hard."

He played down suggestions of a rift with shadow home secretary Ed Balls, pointing out that they were campaigning together later in the day about police cuts.

Commons Leader Sir George Young dismissed the claims, telling MPs: "It is astonishing that they don't want this by-election to be held."

"No one has been disenfranchised," he insisted.

The Liberal Democrats dismissed Labour claims about student voters being disenfranchised.

A spokesman said: "This is another sign that Labour just doesn't understand the constituency.

"With polling day outside of term time there will actually be many more students at home in Oldham than otherwise would have been the case."