Labour has increased its majority in Oldham East and Saddleworth. Yesterday’s by-election saw the party comfortably see off the Lib Dem challenge, taking 14,718 votes compared to the Lib Dem candidate’s 11,160 votes. This can safely be interpreted as what pundits call “a bloody nose” for the coalition government.

Oldham labour

It has happened at a time of shifting fortunes nationally for the main parties.

One national opinion poll in the last week put Labour 8 points ahead of the Tories, with Cameron’s party attracting just 34% of the voters. The same poll was, relatively speaking, good news for the Lib Dems – it put the party on 12%, whereas some polls have had them falling below 10%.

It is also significant that, as Nigel Stanley succinctly explains, a decisive shift has taken place in public attitudes to the cuts. With this being the dominant issue of our times, there’s undoubtedly a link between the shift in attitudes to cuts and the decline in the polls for both coalition partners.

It’s the poor, beleagured Lib Dems who have been hardest hit. Their collapse is directly linked to how they garnered so much support in the first place, taking 23% of the popular vote in last May’s general election. Crucially, they sold themselves to disillusioned Labour supporters as left-leaning, for example by promising to oppose higher student fees, VAT increases and Trident replacement.

The Lib Dems’ role in a coalition government – and the consequent betrayals over fees, VAT and much else – has shattered its support. The party now has only its core base – 10% of the electorate at most – to rely on.

Nick Clegg’s party has a narrower core constituency than Labour and the Tories. It normally reaches beyond this by appealing to disaffected Tories or disaffected Labour supporters – or often both at the same time. But emphatically placing itself on the Right and depriving itself of any distinct identity- by going into coalition with the Tories – has inevitably scuppered them.

The rise in support for Labour is overwhelmingly a symptom of people rejecting the Lib Dems (and to an extent the Tories) and the shift in public attitudes against the coalition’s savage cuts. It doesn’t reflect any great enthusiasm for Labour or any strengths on the part of hapless Ed Miliband, who has been notable for his remarkable inability to make any real political impact.

The Labour leadership barely even offers a dim echo of the anti-cuts and student movements building active resistance to the government’s attacks. The nearest it gets is when it sticks up for modest reforms introduced by the previous government – Bookstart, EMA – which are now being scrapped. But it’s obvious that Miliband and his shadow cabinet are in disarray, still unsure of what line of attack to adopt, incoherent in their policies and compromised by accepting the ‘need’ for cuts.

Jack Straw’s recent racist comments served as a reminder of how rotten New Labour had become. The by-election is another reminder, triggering memories of the disgraceful race-baiting by Phil Woolas at the general election. There’s little evidence that the Labour leader and his front bench team are willing to repudiate the whole degraded political culture of New Labour and unambiguously move beyond it.

Miliband still tries to appease the most fervent Blairites in his party, despite them being out of step with the vast majority of ordinary Labour party members.

Opinion polls and by-election results will reflect the growing opposition to the government. They are a source of hope and optimism. But what’s really crucial in defeating the ConDems’ austerity drive is what happens beyond parliamentary politics.

The student movement is reviving after the Christmas break. Anti-cuts campaigns and trade unions are starting to build a massive turnout for the TUC’s national demonstration on 26 March. Some unions are discussing co-ordinated strike action.

Ed Miliband will at best meekly follow, but these grassroots movements of resistance that can lead the way in confronting a Tory-led government dedicated to destroying public services.

Luna17 Activist

Alex Snowdon

Alex Snowdon is a Counterfire activist in Newcastle. He is active in the Palestine Solidarity Campaign, Stop the War Coalition and the National Education Union.​ He is the author of A Short Guide to Israeli Apartheid (2022).