So the LibDems held on to Eastleigh by a narrow majority of 1,771 or just 4.3%, with UKIP surging into second place. Alex Massie in the Speccie warns against overanalysing by-elections, while Martin Kettle argued last week in the Guardian that this was the most crucial by-election in decades. I’m inclined to agree with Kettle – I think this could well be a by-election that sets the psephological scene for the next election.
I wonder will this be a ‘canary in the coalmine’ by-election reminiscent of South London’s unglamorous Mitcham and Morden in 1982, one of only a handful of government by-election gains since the war. In that case only a very modest fall in the Tory vote was coupled with a huge defection of erstwhile Labour voters to the SDP/Liberal Alliance, seeing a comfortable Tory gain against a split centre-left, prefiguring what happened in literally dozens of seats in the 1983 General Election.
In this case, the key lessons are: UKIP are going to be serious electoral players for the foreseeable with the capacity to upset the apple cart for the Tories in particular, while Labour voters are still prepared to tactically back the LibDems against the Tories. This raises the prospect of a surprisingly cohesive centre-left vote in 2015 facing a fragmented right – 1983 in reverse.
Let’s look at the parties one by one.
For UKIP, today is a day of almost unbridled triumph. Only almost unbridled, because the party will be asking itself ‘what if’ about two questions: what if Farage had run; and what if its surge had started just a little bit earlier?
The media will doubtless focus on Farage’s decision not to run – which was probably the right decision in my view. UKIP needs to become more than a one man band if it is to break through and Farage becoming its first MP – not guaranteed in any event – would probably ensure Farage remained its only MP.
The media will also focus on the wrong question. The questions UKIP needs to ask itself are things like: would we have won if we had proper database software for recording canvassed voting intention? Would we have won if we had a clue how to write an effective direct mail letter? Would we have won had we identified a few unpopular decisions by LibDem-run Eastleigh Borough Council and campaigned viciously on them? Would we have won if we talked less about Europe and immigration, both of which everybody knows we’re opposed to, and talked more about other issues where we might strike a cord with the electorate, like law and order or a spot of non-lefty banker bashing?
As I blogged back in November, the climate is certainly favourable to a UKIP breakthrough, but if they are to bring that prospect to fruition, they need to learn how a small party beats the First Past The Post trap from the Greens, and more especially from the LibDems. That means ruthless targeting and the willingness to see that through at least two election cycles. Even the BNP was smart enough to do that before it committed political hara kiri.
Nnot far away from Eastleigh are seats not impregnably Tory but with much better UKIP potential – places like New Forest East, Worthing East and Shoreham or the Isle of Wight.
The LibDems are obviously one of the big winners from Eastleigh. As the Daily Telegraph’s James Kirkup says, if UKIP are currently the hammer of the Tories, then the LibDems are the anvil.
Don’t buy into the idea that this is a ‘safe’ LibDem seat – Chris Huhne beat Tory Conor Burns (a Belfast boy now an MP just down the road in Bournemouth) by just 568 votes in 2005 and stretched his lead to a hardly overwhelming 7% in 2010. The LibDems have been flatlining in the polls for years, polling just 12% in today’s YouGov poll, for example, and in single digits in others, as opposed to 24% at the last General Election. The by-election was caused by the previous LibDem MP being convicted for perverting the course of justice, while in polling week, headlines were dominated by the groping antics of the centrist party’s former Chief Executive. Sure, they have most councillors in Eastleigh, but they do lots of other places where they’ve never won a Westminster seat and running the local council is a decidedly mixed blessing in British politics.
If they can hang on to the seat in those circumstances, they can now feel confident of holding on to most of their seats where the Tories are their main challenger at the next election; perhaps even picking up a few. Places like Oxford West, Harrogate and the three Tory seats in Cornwall look like at least potential gains all of a sudden. Many LibDem MPs will sleep much easier tonight. Others, where Labour or Nationalists are their main threat, still look to be in deep trouble and unquestionably their number of seats will decline significantly at the next election. But it now looks as though they will retain 30 or more MPs. With an overall majority starting to look beyond the Tories’ grasp, they may prove kingmakers once again.
Perhaps they key reason for that is that Labour voters are still prepared to vote tactically in significant numbers in constituencies like this. I was far from convinced that they would be given the Coalition. Labour’s share of the vote, while very marginally up on 2010, was still less than half it was in 2005, when Huhne scraped home.
The Tories are now caught in a double bind. They are haemorrhaging votes to UKIP on one side, while the LibDems clearly remain a threat on their opposite side, and Labour is (according to today’s YouGov poll) 13 points ahead across GB.
The current Tory parliamentary party, especially the 2010 intake, is probably the most right-wing on record. Cameron has already been under intense pressure to shift the party to the right. As anyone who followed the internal Tory debate on gay marriage will know, however, Lord Ashcroft’s intense opinion research is telling the leadership that is exactly the wrong direction to move.
One particular trap the Tories must avoid is making Europe the party’s central policy theme. Cameron has already promised an in-out referendum if he wins an overall majority in 2015. That did not sap UKIP’s potential, which derives from a sense of cultural alienation on issues well beyond the EU, but instead moved the political debate onto UKIP’s strongest terrain. If the EU is the primary political issue of the day, why should a Eurosceptic vote for a partially sceptical party like the Tories when the full-flavour brand is available with UKIP?
If I were a Tory I would be ruthlessly attacking the Kippers for their lack of an economic policy, lack of policies on public services, and general tendency to, shall we say, deep political eccentricity. On Europe, what can Cameron offer beyond what he already has?
On Cameron’s other flank, but the LibDem leadership is likely to be emboldened by holding Eastleigh; Clegg has been remarkably unassertive for a junior coalition leader who did, after all, poll almost a quarter of the vote at the last election. The LibDems have quietly acquiesced as George Osborne has pursued an economic strategy that is not delivering the goods, and while the Tories have pushed well beyond the coalition agreement on health, education and welfare.
There is simply no reason for the LibDems to make concessions to satisfy the Tory parliamentary party. The Tories did not win the last general election. Vince Cable, in particular, should feel empowered by a combination of his party’s defence of Eastleigh and the UK’s loss of its Triple A bond rating.
All of a sudden, Cameron’s party management problems have become a lot worse – Tory MPs fear UKIP siphoning off votes and letting Labour and Liberals take their seats by the back door – just as his coalition management problems are set to become equally problematic.
Cameron could be in deep trouble politically, but who could the Tories replace him with? And how does the Tory parliamentary party push any leader towards a more rightwing agenda when they simply don’t have a parliamentary majority. Interesting times ahead. There must be at least a prospect of George Osborne being made a sacrificial offering.
Labour once had real strength in Eastleigh, an old railway town, with the council estate dominated south end of the town in particular having a high concentration of loyal Labour voters unsqueezable by the LibDems. I am firmly of the view that Labour would have won the seat from third place in 1997 had then Tory MP Stephen Milligan not had his unfortunate encounter with a plastic bag and a satsuma a few years before, giving the LibDems a by-election win. Doubters note: Labour won Hastings from an even less propitious base and 16% swings to Labour were not unusual in the urban South East in 1997.
I did wonder early in the campaign if Labour might have a chance of breaking through in a four-way fight, as I assumed – wrongly as it turns out – that Labour voters would be less likely to vote tactically for the LibDems than in the past. As a result it’s hard to read too much significance into this result for Labour either way; voting patterns will be very different in crucial South Eastern Labour-Tory marginals like Crawley or the Brighton seats, let alone Lib-Lab marginals in the North and Midlands.