Clegg talks up Lib Dem chances in by-election

The Oldham East and Saddleworth by-election is a "really close contest" between the Liberal Democrats and Labour, Nick Clegg said yesterday.

The Deputy Prime Minister dismissed recent opinion polls which predicted a sizeable defeat for his party as he visited the constituency in a final push for votes ahead of tomorrow's count.

Despite intensive campaigning by a string of Cabinet Ministers, the Lib Dems trailed Labour by 17 points in two separate surveys of voters in the key marginal which were published at the weekend.

The deficit contrasts starkly with the General Election when its candidate Elwyn Watkins lost by only 103 votes and then won a legal bid to have Labour victor Phil Woolas stripped of the seat for lying about him.

Mr Clegg, MP for Sheffield Hallam, said feedback gleaned from party workers in the constituency had painted a different picture of the by-election.

He said: "We have knocked on 35,000 doorsteps and we believe it is going to be pretty close.

"I am not going to be foolish enough to predict the outcome but what I can say is that we are really in this contest and we are here to win.

"We are going out on the doorsteps to campaign hard for Elwyn Watkins and then let the people make up their own mind."

He gave a rallying cry to local party workers who were out canvassing for votes in the village of Grotton in Saddleworth.

Mr Clegg told them: "This is a really close contest between ourselves and Labour in the last crucial hours of this by-election.

"Every single doorstep counts. Let's go knock on some doors."

He added: "I see this by-election as an opportunity for the people of Oldham East and Saddleworth to have a fair, open contest to decide who they want to have as their local MP, that was so badly denied to them by the electoral lies of Phil Woolas at the last General Election."

Mr Clegg conceded there were "always ups and downs in politics" as the party's national poll ratings have also slumped since the coalition Government came into power.