LONDON—It’s the first ballot box test of Britain’s unlikely coalition government—a special election that pits Prime Minister David Cameron’s Conservative Party against his Liberal Democrat partners and gives voters a chance to vent over plans to dramatically slash public spending.
Thursday’s vote in the northern England district of Oldham East and Saddleworth follows a bitter local battle during Britain’s election in May that resulted in the first legal challenge since 1911 to a vote due to illegal campaign tactics.
Labour Party lawmaker Phil Woolas narrowly beat Liberal Democrat Elwyn Watkins by 103 votes, but was ruled to have falsely accused his rival of soliciting support from Muslim extremists. Judges made a rare decision to order a rerun.
A lawyer for Watkins told a court that Woolas doctored photographs, misrepresented facts and stooped “to fomenting racial divisions.” Woolas, a former immigration minister, was stripped of his House of Commons seat and banned from office for three years.
Thursday’s election—the first since May’s national vote—will allocate only one seat in the 650-member House of Commons, but will offer insight into how Britain’s main parties, and voters, are responding to the country’s first coalition government since World War II.
Cameron’s center-right Conservatives won the most seats in May, but fell short of an outright majority and forged a surprising alliance with the center-left Liberal Democrats.
Support for Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg—the leader of the Liberal Democrats—has tumbled since he was hailed as a new political force during the campaign. Opinion polls show his group close to an all-time low, after senior party members were secretly taped criticizing the coalition and Clegg broke a campaign promise not to back a rise in college tuition fees.
Britain has seen weeks of violent protests—which included an attack on a car carrying the Prince of Wales—over the plan to triple the maximum fee for college tuition.
Clegg’s Liberal Democrats appear to have borne the brunt of public anger over government spending cuts of 81 billion pounds ($128 billion) through 2015, which are expected to cost up to 300,000 public sector jobs and will ax many welfare payments.
“The Liberal Democrats face a real conundrum in this election, they are the ones who are taking the flak for the unpopularity of the coalition,” said Ivor Gaber, a political analyst at the University of Bedfordshire.
In Oldham, Clegg and Cameron’s candidates have a tricky task to defend their coalition’s program to reduce the budget deficit, but still remind voters there are sharp differences between their rival parties.
Labour supporters, meanwhile, will look for proof that new leader Ed Miliband’s attempt to distance himself from the legacy of Tony Blair and Gordon Brown is the right strategy to return the party to power. Labour was ousted in May after 13 years at the helm of British politics.
Miliband, 41, narrowly defeated his older and better-known brother David—Britain’s former foreign secretary—in a leadership election in September.
Labour candidate Debbie Abrahams is widely expected to win the special vote, in a district which spans the hardscrabble town of Oldham, on the fringes of Manchester, and exclusive countryside villages. Labour has held the district since 1997, but has been pushed hard in recent years by the Liberal Democrats.
Though the Conservatives polled a close third in May’s original contest, some analysts claim the party has deliberately run a low profile campaign this time, seeking to help Clegg claim a victory which would soothe his anxious rank and file.
Gaber said some Conservatives believe the future of the government could be at stake if rebellions in Clegg’s party continue. “There is a serious risk of the coalition breaking up, the Liberal Democrats have become damaged goods over the tuition fees issue,” he said.
Visiting an auto repair shop in Oldham, Cameron urged voters to select the district’s new lawmaker only on merit.
“It is not a verdict on Nick Clegg or the coalition or anybody else,” he said.