Eastleigh: a by-election for our times

There are 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.

6 thoughts on “Eastleigh: a by-election for our times

  1. Do you really think it would be remarkable if UKIP won this?

    I think if they are to maintain any credibility as a potential threat to the Tories at the next Westminster election they NEED to win this – the stars are aligned for them here in way they won’t be in 2015.

    Whatever happens in WILL be interesting.

  2. I’m going to ask a stupid question…why has John O’Farrell taken to wearing a shirt and tie since becoming a Labour Party candidate? DO people really expect that of their MP, that he is ‘properly’ attired?

  3. Firstly, if he should want it then of course O’Farrell should have a shot at a safe Labour seat (after also contesting his home town seat of Maidenhead in the 2001 Westminster Election – loosing to kittenheels herself). I can also recomend his “Things Can Only Get Better” book – having quoted it on several occasions on my blog. But yes, maybe Labour should have done better.

    Truth is though that this was always going to be a fight between the Tories & the Lib Dems with huge ramifications for the losers. For the Tories, this is one of these seats that they really need to win to form a majority. I still think that Cameron will be in Downing Street after the next election, but that will be down to Labour’s incompitence more than the Tories incompitence.

    However the dark horses here are UKIP. I actualy suspect that they are now begining to get anxious about the electorial breakthrough that they need tgo confirm their emergance. Remember that we didn’t really take notice of the Lib Dems, the SDP or even the SNP untill they started taking seats. If they take Eastleigh, then it will be remembered in the same way as Orpington or Greenwich or Hamilton or any one of the Glasgow Govan elections.

    Is this relevant to us? Well yes as this hints on where Westminster is heading. Will this have a bearing on the Independence referendum? Well, no. Anyone who thinks otherwise really needs to go out and find out why staying in the UK is still conventional wisdom. After all there are Eurosceptics here in Scotland as well.

  4. Charles’s comment is precisely why I don’t trust the Yes Scotland / SNP campaign – way too many people expressing such horrible ideas. UKIP are vile: when SNPers express support for UKIP, it demonstrates how close to UKIP a segment of the SNP are. Not people I want anywhere near national government.

    I think it’s significant that while UKIP as a party is solidly against equal marriage / LGBT equality, Diane James hasn’t (yet) expressed an opinion one way or another – while Maria Hutchings has made explicitly clear she’s against equal marriage (and safe legal access to abortion, and so on). LGBT-friendly/progressive Conservatives in Eastleigh have the choice of voting for Diane James, abstaining, or voting for the NHA Party or even Mike Thornton, depending whether – as Conservatives – they lean right or left.

    (Not that I should care, obviously, which way a Conservative votes – but the fact is, as you say, the centre-right voters in Eastleigh are going to be a snapshot of how worryingly well UKIP can do, how hopefully well NHA Party can do, and how badly the Conservatives and the LibDems can do. Which way will natural Tory voters jump: to UKIP, to abstention (there are as usual a stack of little parties that would be the direct equivalent of a wasted vote) or leftwards/)

  5. I do think a UKIP vote will be good for the YES campaign,as it will show the South’s anti-European bent,and emphasis the difference’s in the outward looking Scottish mindset.

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