Here’s the Saddleworth News election night liveblog, as it happened!
2:40am: I’m off home now to write up a story with the reaction of the candidates and the story of the night. I’ve also just recorded an interview for Radio Five Live’s Morning Reports, so listen out for that after 5am too. Thank you to everyone who has read this liveblog, and thanks in particular for your comments and tweets, it’s been a lot of fun!
2:35am: Interviewed both the victor and the vanquished. Debbie Abrahams said she was “absolutely delighted” while Elwyn Watkins said he hadn’t made any decision about the future, but again praised Delph as his “fantasy village.” Read and hear more from them when I post a fuller report later on!
2:15am: Just spoken to Conservative Kashif Ali. He put a brave face on the party’s desperately poor showing, and took full responsibility himself, refusing to blame the allegedly lacklustre campaign run by senior Conservatives from the national stage.
2:10am: Debbie Abrahams used her first speech as an MP to say the result had sent “a message” to the coalition government. She said: “Mr Cameron and Mr Clegg, you may be watching but now you have to listen.” She also took apparent care to refer to the voters of “this borough” rather than “Oldham” – perhaps an early attempt at trying not to annoy those of us up in Saddleworth!
1:52am: RESULT: Lab 14718, BNP 1560, Con 4481, Grn 530, Elvis 67, Loony 145, Pirate 96, Eng Dem 144, UKIP 2029, Lib Dem 11160
1:50am: Here we go!
1:45am: Still waiting. Get the feeling we’re moments away though. All the photographers are now in position below the stage where the declaration will be made.
1:40am: All the candidates and their agents are being called together by the Acting Returning Officer. Declaration won’t be too far off now I wouldn’t think.
1:25am: And now all three of the main party candidates are here, with the arrival of Liberal Democrat Elwyn Watkins.
He got a great ovation from his supporters in the foyer of the building, with Lib Dem President Tim Farron leading the applause. Mr Watkins was all smiles as he thanked his fellow Lib Dems, but didn’t say anything about the outcome. It looks as though he’s finished a distant second to Labour’s Debbie Abrahams.
Now that the gang’s all here, all we’re waiting for is word on when we might get a declaration. Shouldn’t be too long now, unless one of the minor parties asks for a recount for being close to the 5% deposit threshold.
1:10am: Labour’s Debbie Abrahams is the next of the main party candidates to arrive. She was met at the front door of the Queen Elizabeth Hall by Shadow Education Secretary Andy Burnham.
When asked about her chances, Mrs Abrahams only said “it looks good” and added that she would wait until the result before saying anything else. But she now seems certain to be our next MP, probably with a very healthy majority indeed.
12:40am: Conservative candidate Kashif Ali has just arrived at the count. Party officials have been saying the Tory vote has been squeezed, and that he’ll definitely finish in third.
I asked Mr Ali on his way in how he thought he’d done, he replied: “There’s no point speculating, we’ll know soon enough!” He managed a smile, even though he must be disappointed with how things look like turning out.
12:25am: The latest estimate from a Conservative source is that Labour may have won by six or even seven thousand. That would be a really remarkable result for them.
12:20am: The votes have all been verified so now it’s on to the real business of counting and sorting. Some piles should start to build up in the wire baskets on the tables, so we should soon be able to tell if those suggestions of a comfortable Labour victory are going to be proved right.
Declaration is probably an hour and more away though. And don’t forget, there can be a recount if one of the parties is close to 5% and wants to check whether it’s saved its deposit, so it could yet be a while before we know the outcome for sure.
12:05am: Turnout has been announced as 48.06%. That’s quite a few percentage points higher than expected, and is fuelling the thought that Labour has done better than had been predicted. Labour had been the most worried of the parties about a low turnout affecting their chances. But despite the fact we’re in January and it’s been raining all day, it seems they’ve done a good job of getting their vote out.
The word is that Labour has done better than expected in the Saddleworth part of the constituency in particular. The 48.06% figure compared with just over 61% in the general election in May. Not too bad all things considered, really.
11:50pm: As the night continues a larger than predicted majority for Labour is starting to look likely. People from the various parties are talking about a majority of between three and four thousand for Debbie Abrahams.
11:15pm: Everyone is still carefully playing the expectations game. Labour folks hinting their majority could be in the low hundreds, Lib Dems suggesting it might be nearer a couple of thousand.
If the Lib Dems do steal it or only lose narrowly, they’ll certainly be claiming it’s been a great performance by their candidate Elwyn Watkins. The Conservatives have conceded they’ve been “squeezed a bit” and certainly aren’t predicting anything other than third place.
11pm: Labour are forecasting a turnout of around 40-45%, which is arguably a little higher than a lot of people were expecting, especially given the drizzly weather we’ve had here today. Most predictions among the journalists are of a Labour majority of a thousand or two, but it’s still just educated guesswork at this stage. By-elections have a capacity to surprise us!
10:45pm: There’s a bit of a quiet buzz around the Queen Elizabeth Hall as the ballot boxes arrive one by one, and the counting takes place on the floor down below where we are.
Grabbed a word with one of the Conservative team, he said “it’s still early days,” but certainly didn’t look like someone about to celebrate an unlikely victory. Labour are still telling us it’s closer than some people have predicted, and there could only be a few hundred votes in it. They’re also stressing turnout seems to have been higher in the Lib Dem-supporting Saddleworth than elsewhere. But there’s no doubt they look the most confident, and nothing we’ve heard so far has dented that confidence!
10:15pm: Lots of people from the parties have started filing on to the media balcony to watch proceedings. The Lib Dems seem a bit downbeat, they’ve not given up home completely, but they’ve admitted they’ve been up against it throughout the campaign here.
You could say a certain amount of managing expectations is going on, as they’re reminding us journalists that no governing party has gained a seat in a by-election since 1982. Apparently Elwyn Watkins himself was out knocking on doors, getting voters to the polls, until right up to 10pm. He’s certainly put a huge effort into trying to win this seat, both before the general election, during the Woolas case, and in this campaign.
Meanwhile, here’s a picture I’ve been sent by Jude Gidney of Jude Gidney Photography, of all the political boards near Greenfield Station. Look closely on the right-hand side, and you can see The Beatles are apparently standing in the by-election. Well, we’ve already got the Bus Pass Elvis candidate, so maybe Paul and Ringo aren’t too much of a stretch on top of that.
10:10pm: The counting is about to begin. Oldham Council’s Chief Executive Charlie Parker, who is the Acting Returning Officer, took to the podium right on 10 o’clock to issue his final instructions to the counters.
Just before 10 o’clock I was allowed down with a few other photographers to take a few snaps of the scene. Lots and lots of council staff were waiting to count the votes, and it is just council staff tonight apparently, no bank tellers on the tables.
Dozens of media folk are with me here on the balcony overlooking the counting floor in the Queen Elizabeth Hall. Plenty of well-known names from the national media, and there’s a series of cameras all lined up next to each other pointing at the stage. Now all we can really do is wait!
Preamble: So the polls have closed. After well nigh on a year of political drama in our area, which has taken in a controversial general election campaign, an almost unprecedented legal challenge, and now a high-profile by-election, we’re about to find out who our next MP is going to be. The result is expected between 1am and 2am, but that’s subject to change.
Ten candidates are standing, but only one of them actually did any voting today. Conservative Kashif Ali cast his ballot near his Higginshaw home at breakfast time.
Despite his own energetic efforts, only one Tory Cabinet member came to the constituency to support him before the New Year, and it was only in the last few weeks of the campaign that more arrived to help him. That apparent reluctance to fight too hard fuelled suggestions that senior Conservatives in Westminster were content to give Liberal Democrat Elwyn Watkins a clear run, in the hope a Lib Dem victory here tonight would give a much-needed boost to the under-pressure Nick Clegg.
As for Mr Ali himself, he was still bullish of a good result until opinion polls at the weekend put him down in third place, and that seemed to take the wind out of his sails a bit.
The only other candidate who actually lives in the constituency is Mr Watkins, and he had already voted by post. But he was still at a polling station in Grotton today, helping 79-year-old Marjorie Schofield, who had requested a lift to the polls.
It was Mr Watkins who forced this by-election, when his legal challenge to the general election victory of Phil Woolas was upheld, because of lies told by the former Labour MP in his campaign literature.
Even though the Lib Dems’ national poll rating has plunged towards single figures since the party joined the coalition government, and despite a couple of local polls over the weekend which put him firmly in second place, Mr Watkins has remained positive about tonight’s outcome. He reckons that if the Lib Dems were able to get their core supporters out to vote today, he will win the by-election.
However, the overwhelming favourite remains Labour’s Debbie Abrahams. She couldn’t actually vote for herself because she lives in Newhey, which stopped being a part of this constituency when the boundaries changed before the last general election.
That didn’t stop her getting out and about today though. She was pictured in Shaw Market with someone who is already a Labour MP, Andrew Gwynne who represents the Denton and Reddish constituency.
Mrs Abrahams and her Labour colleagues were at great pains in recent days to warn against complacency, and insist they weren’t taking victory for granted. Labour seemed to be the most worried of all the parties about the possibility of a low turnout.
UKIP’s Paul Nuttall drove past me this morning as I went to cast my vote at the primary school in Dobcross. He was following a party van which was blaring out suitably patriotic hymns. UKIP seem to be in a battle for fourth place with the BNP, which took that position here at the general election. They too were using a car with a loudhailer in Saddleworth today in an attempt to get supporters to the polls.
The other five candidates are Peter Allen of the Greens, David Bishop from the Bus Pass Elvis Party, Official Monster Raving Loony Party candidate Nick “The Flying Brick” Delves, Pirate Party UK leader Loz Kaye and Stephen Morris of the English Democrats.
If you’d like to read more about the story of the campaign, you can read every single article published about it by Saddleworth News here.