Count under way in by-election

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Counting is under way in the Oldham East and Saddleworth by-election

Counting is under way in Oldham East and Saddleworth amid speculation that the coalition could suffer a bloody nose in its first by-election battle.

As polling stations closed at 10pm on Thursday, Labour activists’ optimism was heightened by indications that mild weather had helped push turnout to 45%.

Polls have previously predicted a comfortable win for the party, in what would be a major setback for the Liberal Democrats and Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg.

However, anecdotal evidence from those canvassing has suggested the contest may be closer, and an upset is not off the cards.

The by-election was called after an election court declared last year’s contest void after finding that Labour victor Phil Woolas had made false statements about the Lib Dem candidate Elwyn Watkins.

There were expectations of a local backlash against Labour because of the circumstances of the by-election, but the Lib Dems have also slumped dramatically in the polls since last May.

Despite finishing just 103 votes behind Labour in last May’s general election, polls last weekend found Mr Watkins trailing by a massive 17 points.

Prime Minister David Cameron has been repeatedly forced to deny that the Tories have run a half-hearted campaign in the by-election in a bid to bolster their Lib Dem coalition partners.

Mr Clegg, the Lib Dem leader, and other Lib Dem ministers have paid numerous visits to the constituency to try to shore up their vote. The Deputy Prime Minister insisted this week that the result would be “pretty close”. But two polls of the marginal seat published at the weekend showed the Lib Dems lagging well behind Labour.

The result is expected to be declared in the early hours of Friday.

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