The Oldham East and Saddleworth result is, by any reasonable measure, a good one for Labour. Certainly, they would expect to retain the seat won - just - at the last general election, in the teeth of the anti-Labour gale, given the strength of public opprobrium for the coalition, but a 3500 majority on a 48% turnout is very good, especially as the majority last time round was barely into three figures. It is also a universal truth that by-elections are singular beasts with their own rules and I doubt their relevance to a broader national picture in any worthwhile terms - local issues come to the fore and electors take the chance to apply their boots to the governing party of whichever colour. In terms of a verdict on this government, this is a relative sideshow - the major electoral test this year comes in the broad swathe of local elections in May and I suspect that the outcome will be different then.
We have become used to the hyper-efficient Liberal Democrat squeeze machine rolling into town, focussing all available foot soldiers on a short campaign and stealing votes from one party to defeat the other, but this was the first test of the machine in government and it simply didn't gain enough traction. This is perhaps a little surprising, given that the Phil Woolas was evicted from parliament over his campaigning and Elwyn Watkins would have hoped to reap the harvest of that action, even if the public do seem to punish those who force them to vote repeatedly - the re-run Winchester election being instructive on this point, where Mark Oaten was unseated by an election petition, only to romp home with a massively-increased majority in the second poll, as the electorate turned against the Tory challenger, who was marked down as a bad loser and punished accordingly. It should also be remembered that the timing of this poll was a Liberal Democrat decision as, contrary to the usual protocol that allows the 'sitting tenant' party to pick the date, they moved the writ just before Christmas, counting on a short campaign wrongfooting Labour enough to give them a fair chance. With a distinctly lacklustre Tory campaign on the ground, as much as possible was tilted in favour of the Liberal Democrats, which makes their defeat even more galling.
The Liberal Democrats are very good at using their limited resources to hammer their targetted vote and they rely on the typically low turnouts at by-elections to carry them into a win, but this campaign exposed the limitations of the opposition squeeze when a party of government - however transitory - tries to apply it. Clegg was forlornly trying to spin a 10% margin and 3500 majority as a reasonably close fight this morning, but the reality is that this is self-delusion of the highest order - the Liberals weren't even in the ball park on this one. He also needs to note that while Watkins ended up with a reasonable showing with 11,000 votes, some estimates suggests that 5-6000 of those were votes loaned by Tories trying to support the coalition, rather than convinced Liberal Democrats supporting their party. It seems likely that a decent percentage of the leftish Lib Dems voters have gone Labour. The Liberal Democrats are left celebrating a slight increase in vote share on the general election of just 0.3% - hardly a triumph.
The relatively poor Tory performance (their vote share more than halved from May) has been used to batter Cameron over the head, but it has served to shore up the creaking Coalition a little while longer. The Liberals may be firmly strapped to the mast and prepared to last out the next five years, but the same cannot be said of the right wing of the Tory party. While a hundred Tory MPs and David Cameron himself all popped in to the constituency over the course of the campaign, this was undoubtedly just a matter of show - ensuring that the party can claim to have put up a fight, rather than just loaning voters to the Liberal Democrats. On the one hand, Cameron will feel happy that he has at least saved his colleague further embarrassment - as a decent Tory campaign could credibly have consigned the Liberal Democrats to third place, judging by the General Election result - but on the other hand, he is storing up problems for himself with members of his own party.
Curiously, Thursday's Liberal Democrat win may actually strengthen Cameron's hand with the Liberal Democrats, if he chooses to use it. If they are forced to look to his largesse to secure some of their seats or to even maintain their credibility in the upcoming spate of by-elections (Barnsley Central and a rumour of Leicester South as well), their ministerial discussions today about how they can make the Liberal Democrats more equal partners within the coalition are wild dreams and nothing more. Increasingly, it looks like the Liberal Democrats will become a wholly owned subsidiary of the Conservative Party - and David Cameron in particular.
So, while Labour has capitalised on the travails of the coalition to balance out the embarrassment of the Woolas affair, the result is still a strong one for us. We actually increased our numerical vote over last May, as well as vote share, while the Tories mislaid 7000 voters and the Liberals couldn't locate 3000 of theirs. That sort of disproportionate loss either indicates voters switching their allegiance or an unusually strong Labour turnout for a by-election. It would not do to be complacent, however, as there is still a long way to travel to 2015 and we need to be a genuine alternative to the coalition and not just rely on hoovering up the votes of those opposed to the government.
It is a start, but only a start and there is much more to do.