John Curtice: The roles are reversed after this result - now it's Cameron’s turn in the hot seat

Analysis

Share
Related Topics

Until Thursday night, both Nick Clegg and Ed Miliband faced unease within their parties.

David Cameron, by contrast, was still riding reasonably high. After Oldham those roles will, for the time being at least, be reversed.

Mr Miliband has struggled to make a favourable impression on the public – of recent opposition leaders, only Michael Foot and William Hague had worse personal poll ratings after three months in the job. So the Labour leader needed a good win in Oldham to allay fears that his apparently lacklustre performance was harming his party at the polls.

Oldham duly delivered. Currently the national opinion polls put Labour some 10 points or so above where they were last May. And in Oldham, in real ballot boxes, Labour's share of the vote increased by the same margin. Indeed, with 42 per cent of the vote, the party was back locally to where it had been when it last won a general election, in 2005.

Mr Clegg, meanwhile, has seen his party take a hammering in the polls since it entered into coalition with the Conservatives. Many a recent poll has put the party's standing below 10 per cent. The decisions to sign up to the Tory position on cutting the deficit and to reverse the party's position on tuition fees were sharply at odds with what many of its supporters expected.

But in Oldham there was no sign of the meltdown suggested by the national opinion polls. The party fully retained the 32 per cent share of the vote it won last May. True, in similar circumstances in the past – including in next door Rochdale in 1972 – the party has pulled off spectacular by-election successes. But at least those Liberal Democrat councillors and politicians in the Scottish Parliament and Welsh Assembly who have to face the electorate in May have been given an apparent ray of hope – and Mr Clegg some much needed breathing space.

Still, the Liberal Democrats will want to ponder the apparent reason for their success – a spectacular collapse in the third placed Conservative vote. Tory spokespeople were keen to argue yesterday that parties that start off in third place typically get squeezed in by-elections.

However, the 14-point drop the Tories suffered on Thursday was larger than anything they have suffered in previous by-elections where they started off third behind Labour and the Liberal Democrats – including the 10-point drop they suffered in 1972 in Rochdale.

Evidently, as opinion polls published last weekend suggested, Conservative voters in Oldham switched tactically to the Liberal Democrats in unprecedented numbers – clear evidence of how the formation of the Coalition has started to rewrite some of the rules of the British electoral game.

Together with UKIP's relatively rare success in saving its deposit, the Tory reverse will provide ammunition for those on the party's right who fear the consequences of the Coalition.

Tactical voting in Oldham also means that Mr Clegg's respite could easily prove short-lived. Liberal Democrats facing Conservative opponents in May cannot expect the favour to be repeated. Those fighting Labour may find that tactical support from erstwhile Conservatives is not enough to save their skins. Mr Clegg needs to use his breathing space well.

The writer is Professor of Politics at Strathclyde University

React Now

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Sales Executive - Central London /Home working - £20K-£40K

£20000 - £40000 per annum: Deerfoot IT Resources Limited: Sales Executive - Ce...

Graduate Java / C++ Developer

£40000 - £50000 per annum: Deerfoot IT Resources Limited: Graduate Java / C++ ...

Programme Manager - Business Support Transformation, 1 year contract

£550 Per Day: Clearwater People Solutions Ltd: Our client based in Walthamstow...

ERP Business/ Implementation Analyst

£40000 - £45000 per annum + competitive: Progressive Recruitment: This is an e...

Day In a Page

Read Next
 

The daily catch-up: what if Hillary sticks, drowning sorrows and open sesame

John Rentoul
 

i Deputy Editor's Letter:

Independent Voices, Indy Voices Rhodri Jones
Super Mario crushes the Messi dream as Germany win the 2014 World Cup in Brazil

Super Mario crushes the Messi dream

Germany win the 2014 World Cup in Brazil
Saharan remains may be evidence of the first race war, 13,000 years ago

The first race war, 13,000 years ago?

Saharan remains may be evidence of oldest large-scale armed conflict
Scientists find early warning system for Alzheimer’s

Scientists find early warning system for Alzheimer’s

Researchers hope eye tests can spot ‘biomarkers’ of the disease
Sex, controversy and schoolgirl schtick

Meet Japan's AKB48

Pop, sex and schoolgirl schtick make for controversial success
In pictures: Breathtaking results of this weekend's 'supermoon'

Weekend's 'supermoon' in pictures

The moon appeared bigger and brighter at the weekend
Iraq crisis: How Saudi Arabia helped Isis take over the north of the country

How Saudi Arabia helped Isis take over northern Iraq

A speech by an ex-MI6 boss hints at a plan going back over a decade. In some areas, being Shia is akin to being a Jew in Nazi Germany, says Patrick Cockburn
The evolution of Andy Serkis: First Gollum, then King Kong - now the actor is swinging through the trees in Dawn of the Planet of the Apes

The evolution of Andy Serkis

First Gollum, then King Kong - now the actor is swinging through the trees in Dawn of the Planet of the Apes
You thought 'Benefits Street' was controversial: Follow-up documentary 'Immigrant Street' has got locals worried

You thought 'Benefits Street' was controversial...

Follow-up documentary 'Immigrant Street' has got locals worried
Refugee children from Central America let down by Washington's high ideals

Refugee children let down by Washington's high ideals

Democrats and Republicans refuse to set aside their differences to cope with the influx of desperate Central Americas, says Rupert Cornwell
Children's books are too white, says Laureate

Children's books are too white, says Laureate

Malorie Blackman appeals for a better ethnic mix of authors and characters and the illustrator Quentin Blake comes to the rescue
Blackest is the new black: Scientists have developed a material so dark that you can't see it...

Blackest is the new black

Scientists have developed a material so dark that you can't see it...
Matthew Barzun: America's diplomatic dude

Matthew Barzun: America's diplomatic dude

The US Ambassador to London holds 'jeans and beer' gigs at his official residence – it's all part of the job, he tells Chris Green
Meet the Quantified Selfers: From heart rates to happiness, there is little this fast-growing, self-tracking community won't monitor

Meet the 'Quantified Selfers'

From heart rates to happiness, there is little this fast-growing, self-tracking community won't monitor
Madani Younis: Five-star reviews are just the opening act for British theatre's first non-white artistic director

Five-star reviews are just the opening act for British theatre's first non-white artistic director

Madani Younis wants the neighbourhood to follow his work as closely as his audiences do
Mrs Brown and her boys: are they having a laugh?

Mrs Brown and her boys: are they having a laugh?

When it comes to national stereotyping, the Irish – among others – know it can pay to play up to outsiders' expectations, says DJ Taylor