Eastleigh: a by-election for our times
some many who read this blog who no doubt think that the Eastleigh by-election is no concern of ours. You all might want to look away now.
But the backdrop to it, and the way in which it is being fought, is of interest to political anoraks, for it is zeitgeisty. At least, to this observer.
First, there’s Labour. I watched the Channel 4 News hustings and took a long hard look at the candidates for all of five minutes. John O’Farrell stood out head and shoulders above them all. By saying very little.
Everything about him screamed decent human being. A lifelong supporter of a party who now wants to get involved; to lend his not inconsiderable talents to a greater purpose; and essentially, a non-politician’s potential politician. He has brought humour to his thankful task – his tweets have been a joy to follow – and displayed diffidence and honesty. All the reasons why he should win but won’t, though if Labour has any sense, it will find him – and his ilk in the party – a safe berth for 2015.
It is likely that Labour’s vote will fall in this by-election and they will trail in in fourth place. That should in no way reflect on the candidate but on the party and its leadership. In truth, it was never going to overhaul a standing start of a 9% share of the vote but the main opposition party, scoring consistently highly over the coalition parties in the polls, should have made a better fist of it. Labour either didn’t bother – and if not, why not – or couldn’t get its act together. If it’s the latter, then they should be mighty worried about the state of its campaigning machine: as a dress rehearsal for the 2015 election, this does not augur well, for it is in constituencies like this, albeit more marginal, that it will need to persuade Lib Dem voters to switch directly to it to win.
The coalition parties have fought a curious battle, trying to persuade the voters that the only way to keep the other out is by voting for them. It’s the kind of labyrinthine logic much practised at by-elections: both sides hope the electorate fails to see that the Emperor has no clothes. If either win, it provides a filip to the notion of a coalition government and its programme which is hell bent on destroying the economy, society and the basic pillars of state infrastructure. Those of us up here – and that includes the North of England in this instance – will groan audibly. Voters either use such by-elections to deliver a kicking to the incumbent parties or are so caught up in local concerns that they ignore the bigger picture completely.
And for all the shared concern about jobs, the economy and the cost of living, Eastleigh is the sort of constituency which helps to accentuate the geographical difference in political beliefs and habits on these islands. When we see how those issues play in the minds of the goodly folk of deep-south constituencies like this, it is easy to conclude that Scotland and England are indeed very different, near foreign lands.
Thus, Maria Hutchings is the sort of Conservative candidate whom we haven’t seen much of in these parts recently. Forthright and far right, the irony is that she is managing to make the UKIP candidate appear like a paragon of common sense. She is symptomatic of the fault lines in the Tory psyche at the moment and representative of everything David Cameron would like to leave behind. She is a throwback to previous parliamentary times and William Hague’s ill-fated and jarring general election campaign.
The Tories were best placed to capitalise on the Lib Dems’ local and national travails but not with this candidate. Which is curious and does not augur well for the prospect of a majority win in 2015. A loss here – and the Tories might well lose – will heap pressure on Cameron, with more dissenting voices demanding a return to Tory bad old ways.
UKIP, I am sad to relate, has played a blinder. It picked a local candidate who comes across as ordinary, respectable and is playing the game very well. Everything – or nearly everything – Diane James said at those televised hustings sounded plausible and sensible. And left me feeling distinctly queasy. This xenophobic party is beginning to hide its true colours well, even if it does speak in blatant untruths. This morning on GMS, Diane James recounted the tale of a local man who has been unemployed for 10 years, tried for every job going but is giving up. Only yesterday, she said, he was at an interview for a job and out of twelve candidates, ten of them were European. Oh, it’s subtle and remarkably silver-tongued.
Those closer to the campaign suggest that if there was another week to go, UKIP would win this contest, such is the speed with which the other parties are haemorraghing potential votes to it. It might still leapfrog both Labour and the Conservatives into second place. And frankly, we don’t really know how the stench and taint of scandal hanging over the Lib Dems at the moment will play out in voters’ minds.
But the Lib Dems have done in this by-election what they do so well: used a highly effective local machine as the base upon which to build a successful underdog, oppositionalist campaign. The candidate, Mike Thornton, is local and played the Chris Huhne thing just right. But whether or not the current Rennard allegations – and what it says about the Lib Dem leadership generally when coupled with the Huhne disgrace – hurts the Lib Dems or as John O’Farrell suggested, encourages voters to deliver a plague on all the parties’ houses, remains to be seen.
The most recent poll put the Lib Dems five percentage points above the Tories and about ten points above UKIP. It’s not enough of a margin to suggest they are home and dry, even though with its strong local standing, this by-election should have been an easy hold for them – despite the circumstances in which it is being fought.
And that lead was recorded at the weekend – and as anyone who has ever fought a by-election can testify – a week really is a long time in such campaigns. If UKIP has the momentum then it could conceivably make huge inroads into that lead and perhaps even overhaul it; it’s doubtful that the Tories, unless they have somehow got much more sophisticated at differential turnout in recent times, can overcome the mood music. The Lib Dems might just manage to hold off and hold on: no one can call it and for political anoraks, that in itself makes it exciting.
If it turns out to be a Lib Dem hold, we are unlikely to remember this by-election other than for marking the complete downfall of the Lib Dems as some kind of other-worldly third party in UK politics. Its cover image has now been well and truly blown and it will have to take its chances in the big elections with the other two.
But if UKIP does manage to pull off the remarkable and win this seat, then we will be remembering it for a long time to come. Eastleigh will mark a watershed in UK politics and not in a good way. In some respects, a UKIP victory would mark the completion of the journey Thatcher began in the 1980s in terms of overhauling our belief system: it might be a protest vote but it will say something pretty fundamental about what constituencies like Eastleigh have to protest about and how they go about it.
And the nature of that protest and its manifestation in a UKIP victory might well have consequences for the independence referendum up here.