Reporting from Oldham, England — Voters gave a thumbs-down to Britain's ruling coalition Thursday, electing a new member of Parliament from the opposition Labor Party in a sign of brewing discontent over the harshest government austerity plan in decades.
It was the first electoral test for the Conservative-led coalition that took power last spring after 13 years of Labor dominance. The new government has announced a series of massive cuts in public spending to close a yawning budget deficit and to remold a society that it says has grown too dependent on the state.
Voters in and around the northern English town of Oldham went to the polls Thursday to fill a parliamentary seat formerly held by a Labor member who was ejected from office by a court because of dirty campaign tricks in May's election. Despite the scandal, the new Labor candidate, Debbie Abrahams, convincingly defeated the Conservative and the Liberal Democrat candidates in a contest widely seen as a referendum on their first eight months in office.
Voters "have sent a clear message to those in Downing Street," a message of anger against reckless policies and broken campaign pledges, Abrahams said in her victory speech. "Stop your broken promises and start giving people a fairer deal."
Preelection polls had indicated that Labor would most likely hold on to the seat, which encompasses this gritty working-class, multiethnic town, as well as some more affluent rural villages.
But the result was still something of a blow for Prime Minister David Cameron, the leader of the Conservatives, and even more so for Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg, who heads the Liberal Democrats, the junior partner in the government.
Clegg's center-left party came within about 100 votes of snatching the seat from Labor last May in what would have been a major upset. But its approval ratings have sunk to catastrophic lows since the party unexpectedly joined the Tories in coalition.
The Liberal Democratic candidate, Elwyn Watkins, who nearly won in May, trailed Abrahams by more than 3,500 votes. The Tory hopeful, Kashif Ali, was an extremely distant third.
Disaffected supporters accuse Clegg and the party leadership of selling out their principles for a taste of power and acquiescing in a right-wing agenda for which many Liberal Democrats would never have voted.
"For the Lib Dems, it is becoming increasingly clear that the perceived lack of independence is turning into a disaster," columnist Rachel Sylvester wrote in the Times of London this week. "The deputy prime minister emphasized that his party would 'own' everything that the coalition did. … And they are paying a huge price."
That agenda includes a plan to rein in a worrisome budget deficit by radically shrinking the government. Though politicians of all stripes agree that cuts are unavoidable, Labor and other critics say the coalition's campaign to chop $128 billion in spending over four years will stall Britain's economic recovery, bite into basic public services and propel thousands of people into misery.
Before heading out to their polling stations Thursday, voters in Oldham awoke to news that the City Council of neighboring Manchester — Oldham is a suburb — intends to cut about 2,000 jobs, far more than had been anticipated.
At the same time, some of London's big-name banks, several of which received taxpayer-funded bailouts, are preparing to award hefty bonuses to their executives. The government has declined to intervene.
"Conservatives have always been for the upper class, and they always will be," said Stewart Wood, a lifelong Oldham resident who cast his ballot for the Labor candidate. "Money will look after money."
Wood, 58, has been out of a job for more than a year. He used to install computer networks at new building sites, but the work dried up along with the construction boom during the recession.
Labor's victory came as welcome relief for party leader Ed Miliband, who took up the post less than four months ago. Miliband has had trouble stamping his authority on his fractious party and scoring points against Cameron and Clegg.
But support for Labor is predicted to surge as the government's cuts begin to hit home.