Andrew Grice: Breathing space for Miliband - a bloody nose for Clegg

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The Independent Online

First, the good news for Labour. Victory in the Oldham East and Saddleworth by-election will help silence the mutterings about its leader, Ed Miliband, from critics in his own party.

And now the bad news. Although Mr Miliband will trumpet Labour's victory, the result tells us little about how his party is doing now or how it will do at the next general election. It is more a verdict on the Coalition Government as the spending cuts, rise in VAT and hike in petrol prices translate the "age of austerity" into painful reality.

Above all, it is a verdict on the Liberal Democrats. A lot has happened since they finished a mere 103 votes behind Labour last May and Nick Clegg has become public enemy number one over decisions such as the trebling of university tuition fees. It was always going to be a big ask for the Liberal Democrats to win the seat; one in three people who voted for Mr Clegg's party say they would vote for Labour now, according to the latest ComRes survey for The Independent.

All the same, Labour's victory is well-timed for Mr Miliband. After a rather lacklustre first three months in his post, he is now trying to reposition Labour to solve its credibility problem on the economy. The Coalition has succeeded in persuading many voters that the Labour Government is to blame for the deficit in the public finances.

It didn't matter in Oldham East and Saddleworth, since by-elections are traditionally a time for protest votes. But Mr Miliband knows the Coalition's "blame game" matters, and he is expected to concede that the Brown Government was slow to use the "language of cuts" in a keynote speech tomorrow.

Although Oldham East and Saddleworth gives Mr Miliband a breathing space and a platform, he has a lot of building work to do.