LONDON // Voters inflicted a bloody nose, but no fatal injuries, on the UK's coalition government yesterday in its first electoral test since coming to power eight months ago.
Labour held the seat of Oldham East and Saddleworth in north-west England, increasing the narrow, 103-vote majority it notched up at May's general election to an impressive 3,558 over the second-placed Liberal Democrats.
The size of the victory, declared just after 2am local time yesterday, delighted Labour and came as a relief to Ed Miliband, who took over as the party's leader last autumn.
After an unimpressive start to his reign since succeeding Gordon Brown, Mr Miliband was branded a "nothing man" last week by the Conservative Prime Minister David Cameron.
It was a charge likely to stick had Labour failed to notch up an impressive win in the Oldham seat, which has been in Labour hands since it was created by constituency boundary changes a little more than 20 years ago.
As it turned out, Mr Miliband was able to hail the win as a rejection of the coalition's policies aimed at cutting Britain's record deficit by slashing public spending and raising taxes.
"I think the voters of Oldham East and Saddleworth have sent a very clear message to the government about some of the things they've been doing, the rise in VAT [sales tax], the trebling of tuition fees and the [spending] cuts.
"This is the first step in a long journey for Labour. But more importantly, I hope the government will listen to what the voters have said about those key issues."
But the Liberal Democrats, the Conservatives' junior partners in Britain's first coalition government since the Second World War, could also take comfort from the result.
At a time when two nationwide opinion polls have put their support in single figures - down from a high of 32 per cent less than a year ago - the Lib Dems not only avoided meltdown in Oldham but even managed a marginal increase in their share of the vote.
An obviously relieved Nick Clegg told reporters outside his London home yesterday: "I think the strong result in this by-election for the Liberal Democrats shows that whether we are in government or in opposition we remain a strong, united independent party whose values continue to attract support.
"It was a by-election held in unusual circumstances at a time when the government is taking difficult decisions, of which we are a part."
The big losers were the Conservatives, whose share slumped by more than 7,000 votes, reinforcing concern among party activists over the likelihood of a collapse in support for the Tories among working-class voters in northern seats.
Right-wingers have also voiced concerns over Mr Cameron's apparent willingness to give the Lib Dems a relatively free run in Oldham.
Baroness Sayeeda Warsi, the Conservative chairman, denied that the party had been "soft-pedalling" to help its coalition partner. "I led this campaign and every resource was put into it," she told the BBC.
"We never attacked the Liberal Democrat Party but we never campaigned for them either.
"We started off this by-election with Labour having held the seat in 2010 and we wake up this morning and Labour still hold the seat and we are still in third place, so nothing much has really changed."
The by-election was called after a special election court declared last year's contest void and barred Labour's sitting MP, Phil Woolas, from holding public office for three years after finding him guilty of making false statements about his Lib Dem opponent in his campaign literature.