Friday, 1 March 2013

Eastleigh: what does it all mean?

So last night the Liberal Democrats, the junior partner in Britain's coalition government, held on to one of their Parliamentary seats on the south coast of England. So far, so uninteresting.

Small political earthquake: no-one dead.

But there are a few details here that make it this by-election a fascinating topic of speculation. I love this stuff, I know, but bear with me for a minute.

It was a great night for the Liberal Democrats. They faced horrible headwinds going into this election - terrible headlines, across the Conservative-leaning press saying that they were a bunch of lying hucksters. The previous MP had been forced to resign after getting his wife to lie to the police over a speeding offence. The party's ex-election guru, Lord Rennard, has been accused of all sorts of unpleasant advances to the party's women candidates - allegations which he strongly denies. Left-leaning voters despise the party for propping up an administration fixated on bleak austerity for years to come. Right-wingers detest the Liberal Democrats for being soft on immigration, welfare and, well, just about everything really. So what did they do? They knuckled down. They flooded the seat with volunteers and activists. They got a decent, low-key local candidate to talk about the town's opportunities and problems. They got to work, basically, and they pulled off a remarkable win.

And it was a very, very, and - yes - very worrying night for the Conservative Party. For what they face now is what Labour had to deal with in the 1980s: a party right next to it, squabbling for 'its' voters. Now the United Kingdom Independence Party, which managed to come second in Eastleigh, takes its voters from across the ideological spectrum. Lots of people want to leave the European Union. It's a perfectly reasonable (though deeply misguided) ambition. But the party's activists, its grass-roots, and its increasinly populist tone, must threaten the Tories' ability to remain the largest party after the May 2015 election. Their hopes of an overall majority are now very close to zero; but it was up until recently likely that they would still have a plurality of seats in the House of Commons. Give UKIP five per cent of the vote in marginal seats all over England, and that hope too evaporates immediately.

So what does it all mean? Maybe nothing. By-elections are special; they are full of protest votes. The Lib Dems won't be able to flood every one of their 57 constituencies with party workers come a General Election. UKIP won't be able to create the sense of momentum that they managed in Eastleigh. Labour, who did rather poorly in the seat, will look relevant.

Ask a historian, for this has all happened before. By-elections come and by-elections go, and you can read into them what you like. The 1987-92 Parliament was splatted with Conservative losses - Vale of Glamorgan, East Staffordshire, Eastbourne, Ribble Valley - and they all went blue again at the next election. The Social Democratic Party's surge, and the brief hopes of a Liberal-SDP Alliance government in the early 1980s, were nurtured in by-election fights such as Crosby in 1981. They never 'broke through' in a general election.

But, actually, when you look at the record, by-elections do indicate some of the deeper tides in public opinion. By-elections on the Wirral, in Walsall North, Ashfield and Ilford North during the 1974-79 Parliament robbed Labour of their majority then, and signalled the detachment of certain types of working-class and professional voters from the movement that they had always identified with. The SDP-Liberal Alliance became the Liberal Democrats, and eventually they won many seats that most commentators never gave them a hope of winning. Now they sit in government. You can often tell from these bunfights just when and how the public are shifting their ideological ground. In 1992-97 Labour took a string of seats that they then went on to hold - Dudley West and South-East Staffordshire (on a vast 22 per cent swing) are two that spring to mind. In 1962 Orpington went Liberal and signalled the last days of a long Conservative hegemony.

So we can ask that question again: what does it all mean? Maybe something. The Liberal Democrats are tenacious fighters who aren't going anywhere without a nasty struggle. The Conservatives remain deeply unpopular, and in some ways their party 'brand' is irretrievably broken. UKIP pose a serious threat to their hopes of ever governing again on their own. Labour has deep, deep problems in the south of England - as this column has argued all along.

We knew most of that anyway. But Eastleigh tells us that what we thought we knew is right.

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