Published on 28 Feb 2013

Eastleigh: have voters found a new party of protest?

So the polls have closed in what’s been the most fascinating by-election for many a year.

Now there’s always a temptation for us political hacks to exaggerate the importance of certain elections, and yet there are several ways in which Eastleigh could be seen in years to come, as something of a historic turning point. Tonight’s result has big implications for each of the parties, depending, of course, on what exactly that result is.

Eastleigh by-election – reaction and analysis

We should remember it’s a Liberal Democrat seat, and the Lib Dems and their Liberal predecessors haven’t lost a seat they already hold in a parliamentary by-election since Carmarthen in 1957. But for Nick Clegg and his party to triumph in the current circumstances would be an incredible boost, what with their national polling figures down to below half what they got at the 2010 general election, and of course the Lord Rennard scandal which has dominated politics for eight days now.

But the Lib Dems in Eastleigh are among the best-organised local parties in Britain, boasting all the local councillors and they’ve run Eastleigh district council since 1994, when they first took the parliamentary seat. Victory here would bear out what I’ve been saying for several years – that the Lib Dems won’t be wiped out at the next election. Where they are strong locally, they will be very difficult to dislodge in 2015.

In a way, a Conservative defeat might easily be shrugged off. After all, a governing party has only GAINED a seat in a by-election three times since the war – Sunderland South (1953); Brighouse (1961) and Mitcham and Morden (1982), and each time the Conservatives were the beneficiaries. But this was the Conservatives’ big opportunity to get one over their coalition colleagues – hence David Cameron making two visits here, which I think is the first time a sitting PM has ever done so.

If Maria Hutchings loses tonight, especially if she does badly, David Cameron may end the week as a more beleaguered party leader than Nick Clegg. The discontent on the backbenches will grow and the pressure on George Osborne to produce a radical, exciting budget in three weeks time will be all the greater.

Labour, too, has a lot at stake here. The party hoped that Eastleigh would show that it could win back significant support in the south, and indeed one of Labour’s key proponents of a southern strategy, John Denham, an MP from nearby Southampton, has been running Labour’s campaign here. With an economy flat-lining, the reduction in Britain’s AAA credit rating, and the party doing well nationally in the polls, surely this was the chance for Labour to make an impact? Just as it did in the 1994 by-election when they came second to the winning Lib Dems, and in the 1997 election when they were second again (at the peak, of course, of Blair and New Labour).

A miserable result will inevitably raise questions about whether Labour can win significant numbers of seats in the south, and whether Ed Miliband‘s “one nation” approach, and Ed Balls’ economic policies are working.

But the most dramatic story in Eastleigh has been Ukip, who look set to achieve their highest ever vote in a Westminster election, surpassing the 21.7 per cent they got in Rotherham last autumn. I’ve been struck talking to voters this week by the high levels of support for Ukip from people who’d cast their votes right across the spectrum – defectors from the Conservatives, Lib Dems and Labour.

And the high level of Ukip support is all the more remarkable given the fact that David Cameron promised that if he gets a majority in 2015 he’ll give an “in-out” referendum on Europe.

Whether or not they win here, Ukip has been breaking important new ground in several ways. It’s now become acceptable and respectable to vote for Ukip in a way that wasn’t quite true a year ago. Many voters were reluctant to contemplate Ukip as they were thought to be oddballs, or in David Cameron’s phrase “closet racists”.

And the respectability for Ukip is reinforced by the growing willingness of the broadcasting community to treat Ukip as one of the “major parties”. We saw it with our Channel 4 debate on Monday, in which their candidate sat alongside the old three parties. The question is whether Ukip will carry on getting seats at the broadcasters’ debating table between now and the 2015 election.

And that brings us to one of the stories of this by-election – the willingness of some Lib Dem voters to switch to Ukip. It seems incongruous given Ukip’s emphasis on the EU and immigration, on which the Lib Dems are Ukip hold very different views. But what’s happening is that people who backed the old party of protest, have now found a new one.

I’ve no idea what will happen in the next few hours. But I guarantee the outcome won’t be dull.

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3 reader comments

  1. StuartM says:

    Amusing how, in the past such defeats as the Conservative suffered would result in the party leader saying “we are listening, we get the message”. Even Blair could bring himself to such messages. But Cameron (et.al.) seems just too arrogant. The electorate are protesting (he admits that). What does he think they are protesting about ? Because most people would think they are protesting about what the government is doing. So Cameron’s response is that they will continue, ignoring the message and doing just more of what he acknowledges the electorate is protesting about! Sensible or arrogant?

    I believe it illustrates how irrelevant the public are to those in power and how all the “posh boys …” comments ring with greater strength given their response.

  2. Robert Taggart says:

    Watching on another channel (BBC1 – This Week : By election Special) – the counting certainly appeared to get some going…
    There was some old fella in a grey suit in the background busily gesticulating… your goodself Cricky ?!

  3. Ray Turner says:

    I cast a positive vote for UKIP. It wasn’t a protest this time. It has been on previous occasions, but not this time. If I’d wanted to cast a protest vote I would have voted for somebody other than UKIP.

    Its rather patronising of the media, the establishment as a whole actually, to assume that a vote for anybody other then the big three is a protest.

    There were parties in the by election who were clearly after the protest vote, the Monster Raving Loonies of course, but UKIP were putting forward credible policies for Government and should not be seen or portrayed as a protest.

    True, some people feel that those policies are wrong, but UKIP policies were credible and as we are supposedly living a democracy, they should be discussed and debated rather than dismissed…

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