8 Feb 2013

Eastleigh: stage set for a fascinating political battle

Here we go again.  19 years ago, in the spring of 1994, I spent several days in the Eastleigh constituency covering the run-up to the then by-election, which turned out to be one of the great Lib Dem by-election victories at the height of the Major government’s unpopularity.

David Chidgey was elected MP.  In 2005 he was succeeded by Chris Huhne, and now the Lib Dems hope to make it three MPs in a row.

But under Nick Clegg, the Liberal Democrats have lost their magic touch in by-elections. Clegg has no gains to his name, and some embarrassing results recently in places such as Barnsley and Rotherham.

Now the party faces the prospect of losing its first seat in a by-election since 1957, when David Lloyd-George’s daughter Megan (a former Liberal deputy leader) took Carmarthen for Labour (to whom she’d defected not long before).

Ominously, that contest was also held on 28 February.

But the mood in Eastleigh is very different to the scenes of recent Lib Dem by-election disasters.  Lib Dems have run the local borough council for about two decades now, and the council regime seems pretty popular locally.

The party also boasts a good local organisation.  But it’s surprising that their council leader Keith House has decided against fighting this election.  House was a leading contender for the nomination back in 1994, when he was just 24 years old, and has led the local council ever since, almost half his life.  (He must also be among the longest-serving council leaders in Britain.)

Eastleigh is a good example of why it’s foolish to write off the Lib Dems at the next general election.  Despite their slump in national popularity over the last two years, the party will still do very well in seats where they are organised and  boast a good base in local government.

The Liberal Democrats pick their candidate tomorrow, and the contender looks likely to be one of House’s council colleagues.  A poll commissioned by the former Tory treasurer Lord (Michael) Ashcroft put the Lib Dems only 3 per cent behind the Tories, and their aim now in this campaign will be to squeeze the Labour vote.

That will be helped by the comment last night from Labour’s former Home Secretary Alan Johnson that “we’re not going to win it”.  Expect Johnson’s name (and words) to feature a lot more on Lib Dems leaflets than the former MP Chris Huhne.  Privately, Labour strategists agree with Johnson’s public verdict.

The fascinating question is why Labour is writing off Eastleigh so quickly?  At the 1994 by-election, held just before Tony Blair become leader, and during the Margaret Beckett interregnum, Labour came second to the Lib Dems, with more than 27 per cent of the vote, and at the 1997 general election Labour got 26.8 per cent here.

So if Ed Miliband hopes to follow Blair into Downing Street, surely he should be aiming to achieve a similar performance. To write Eastleigh off seems to write off the prospect of Labour progress in southern England as a whole.

Then we have Ukip, fresh from a string of successful by-election campaigns.  Their leader Nigel Farage thought about running here, but decided against it. Did he fear the UKIP surge may have been halted by Cameron’s promise of an in-out referendum (and now what looks like pretty successful outcome to the EU budget negotiations)?  Now contenders for the nomination, to be announced on Monday, include the economist Tim Congdon.

All the pressure is said to be on David Cameron to win this, and many backbench critics say victory here is one of their must-win tests for the PM.  But the fact is that only three times since 1945 has a government party actually gained a seat in a by-election. The previous cases were all Tory wins – Sunderland South (1953), Brighouse and Spenborough (1960), and Mitcham and Morden (1982). And the latter case was exceptional because the sitting Labour MP had defected to the SDP and courageously called a by-election.

Eastleigh will ultimately be a two-way fight between the Tories and Lib Dems.  Victory for either party would be quite some achievement.

The 1994 campaign was rather dull, if I remember rightly, and the Lib Dem victory quite expected.  Eastleigh 2013, in contrast, looks like being one of the most interesting by-election contests for many a year.

List of Eastleigh by-election candidates
Colin Bex, Wessex Regionalists
David Bishop, Elvis Loves Pets Party
Jim Duggan, The Peace Party – Non-Violence, Justice, Environment
Ray Hall, Beer, Baccy and Crumpet Party
‘Howling Laud’ Hope, Monster Raving Loony William Hill Party
Maria Hutchings, Conservative Party
Diane James, UKIP
Iain Maclennan, National Health Action
Kevin Milburn, Christian Party ‘Proclaiming Christ’s Lordship’
John O’Farrell, Labour Party
Daz Proctor, Trade Unionists and Socialists Against Cuts
Danny Stupple, Independent
Michael Thornton, Liberal Democrats
Michael Walters, The English Democrats – ‘Putting England First!’

Follow Michael Crick on Twitter.

43 reader comments

  1. Ray Turner says:

    A two-way fight…?

    Well, that is the obvious conclusion I suppose, but you never know.

    By-elections throw up some strange results sometimes…

  2. Alex Ashman says:

    What about the National Health Action Party? You might be missing a trick if you don’t mention them.

  3. David Tainsh says:

    With the betrayal that all 3 of these parties have played in the back door privatisation of the NHS I think people should consider voting ‘.National Health Action Party’.

    We can safely say one thing at the moment and that is all 3 major parties are brought and paid for scum.

    1. Laurence Williams says:

      Dear David,
      I couldn’t have put it better myself! The liblabcon are just self-serving parasites supplying and feeding off fear! They make my blood boil with the likes of Huhne just casually saying “oh, I’ve lied these last ten years, so goodbye” and still expecting good treatment and pay-offs! I’m coming down to Eastleigh from Kent to help the NHAP campaign! Best wishes to you. Laurence Williams [Sidcup, Kent]

  4. Miles says:

    Come on, Ch4, I’d have credited you with not ignoring the National Health Action Party!!!

  5. andrew bunting says:

    National Health Action Party

    They haven’t mentioned National Health Action yet. There’s a comments box at the bottom of the article – let’s make sure they know about us!

  6. Helen Burke says:

    National Health Action are contesting the seat! Hoping to highlight the failure of current policy on the NHS, in the light of the findings of the Francis report. we want an end to privatisation of our NHS!

  7. Anoop says:

    The National Health Action Party will be fielding a candidate in Eastleigh, Dr Iain Maclennan, who is a local doctor, public health expert and former navy medical officer. The party aims to restore and improve the NHS, and not allow it to be broken up and sold off for private profit.

  8. Janann says:

    Dear channel four ,,, I am deeply concerned that there is NO reporting on the NATIONAL HEALTH ACTION PARTY. They have a website, they are also on facebook. All parties reported about but the NATIONAL HEALTH ACTION PARTY. I look forward to channel 4 playing a fair game.
    Thank you.

  9. Jayne Sylvest says:

    The National Health Action Party are fielding a candidate …https://www.facebook.com/NHAeastleigh.

  10. martin Chadwick says:

    I wonder what effect the National Health Action Party will have. Lots of decent voters may not be able to stomach a Tory or a Lib Dem and decide to vote for a candidate who will safeguard one of the most precious parts of our society. A first outing for a new kind of party.

  11. Stephen Slominski says:

    “But it’s surprising that their council leader Keith House has decided against fighting this election”

    Come off it Michael, you know it’s your fault!

  12. Liam says:

    Why not mention the National Health Action Party which has saving the NHS as its primary goal? All three main parties have eroded the NHS one way or another: Could this be the time for a Wake-Up Call to them?

  13. Adam Woodsford says:

    No mention of the National Health Action Party?

  14. Shelley says:

    It is also fascinating from the point of view that the public are sick of all main parties and the national health action party may take a chunk more of the votes than expected

  15. Kevin Smith says:

    Dont be so sure it will be a 2 horse race. The National Health Action Party have a local candidate standing for election in Eastleigh. The NHS has a special place in the hearts of the public and most, probably all, have been touched at some point in their lives by its overall exellence. Contrary to what the political parties have and are forcing onto the public, the majority do, and always will, want a publicly run and funded universal national health service free to all at the point of delivery

  16. Alfie Birdwood says:

    What about the National Health Action Party – they could pull off a surprise.

  17. Kim Harris says:

    All well and good, but don’t forget, one of the reasons many people are so disillusioned with the Lib Dems is their sell out to the Tories over the National Health restructuring (Privatisation).
    So enter the National Health Action Party who are putting up candidate Ian Maclennan, a local doctor. Hopefully Dr Maclennan and the NHAP will be able to send a very clear message to Westminster that we the public are not prepared to stand by and watch as our beloved NHS is destroyed in the name of “efficiency”. (We already have one of the most efficient health systems in the world).

  18. Angela Chicken says:

    I haven’t seen any mention of the National Health Action Party. Personally I would like to see the competition open up a bit wider, so we can have a proper debate about what is going on in this country.

  19. Rebecca Mountain says:

    What about the National Health Action Party?? Surely they deserve a mention?

  20. T Duckett says:

    It will also be interesting to see how popular the National Health Action party is, in the first seat they are contesting.

  21. caroline Raffan says:

    You have no mention of the National Health Action Party candidate here.

  22. Tina clayton says:

    I hope that the NHAP win this by election by a great majority, it hopefully will wake up this government to realise enough is enough of their lies and spin

  23. Margie Arts says:

    Once again the media will be giving the major political parties coverage for their campaigns with the hard working independent organisers being gagged with the comments – ‘so many other candidates’. When all candidates have to pay the same deposit why is there this bias in provision of information about the prospective candidates? Just not fair is it?

  24. Tony Whitfield says:

    There may be more to this by election than many seem to think, National Health Action Party’s first candidate is a very strong one, ex GP and local,

  25. Kate Merriman says:

    Don’t forget the National Health Action Party, who have already announced their candidate.

  26. Tina Clayton says:

    Why are you not posting comment on this article?

  27. Lynne Roper says:

    Don’t forget that this is the first seat to be contested by the NHS Action Party. It will be interesting to see how the main parties attempt to justify the privatisation of the NHS, which is the inevitable result of years of creeping free market logic applied to public services.
    There was no mandate for the Health and Social Care Bill, and I would suggest that many voters will back the NHS Action Party which was formed in order to save the NHS, and which will also address the shocking gap between the very wealthy and the rest of us. I would like to see a proper debate and a real challenge to neo-liberal free-market policies which have sullied all governments since Thatcher, regardless of political persuasion.

  28. sharon says:

    The National Health Action Party have a candidate, why no mention of this?…https://www.facebook.com/NHAeastleigh

  29. dave taylor says:

    As a professional journalist, you know that by-elections often throw up surprises- protest votes- or popular local or independent candidates.
    And I’m surprised you didn’t think it worthwhile commenting on the first candidate of a brand new UK political party- the NHAP- ‘National Health Action Party’.
    They have a good strong local candidate, and potentially large support- and C4 viewers deserve to be told about it.

  30. M A Owen says:

    Looking at the Lib Dems because of Eastleigh I find it interesting to consider just how high a percentage of corrupt people over the years such a small Parliamentary party appears to house, why is that? After all they purport to be the plastic sandal do-gooding brigade, which makes the statistical bias even more odd! Could it have something to do with their actions being at odds with their fine words. After all we have just seen them destroy Mr Gove’s attempt to bring good high quality education to all levels of society and ordinary kids in this country. In spite of the fact they insist on private or high quality education for their own kids. Obviously they have a very patronising view of working class children, which says as given they are not capable of proper learning, are not capable of being educationally pushed but must always be dummed down to, oh really. Why do do-gooders always do such harm, is it an intrinsic reaction possibly based on the fear of losing their own power base; after all a well education working class with good economic opportunity might not be so inclined to believe the weasel words of these people? Would that I had an address in Eastleigh, I would take the greatest pleasure in NOT voting for them.

  31. Sarah Dent says:

    There’s only one party that unites everyone in the country from left and right. The National Health Action Party. Why is there so little mention of it in the press? Time to show the major parties what people really care about.

  32. Ray Turner says:

    I think your blog is being targetted Michael, by the NHAP. An interesting campaign tactic, but I can see through it…

  33. Terry Robson says:

    Hey Channel 4 – I’ve come to expect better form the only news program I trust. What about the National Health Action Party?

  34. Ray Turner says:

    And interesting to see you in Hamble, with boats in the background. The Eastleigh constituency is much more than a Railway Town…!

  35. Charles Long says:

    UKIP is mentioned as a single issue party that has typically done well in bye-elections – particularly when all major parties lack electoral support – but one which may suffer because the Coalition has picked up its issue. Why then no mention of National Health Action whose issue has largely been created by the Coalition – in breach of specific coinciding manifesto commitments not to tinker with the NHS. But then media coverage of the major parties’ continuing onslaught on one of our proudest national achievements has been conspicuously poor.

  36. Franklin Percival says:

    Three cheers for the NHA Party!

  37. Laurence Williams says:

    Forget about the usual liblabcon filibustering, Eastleigh has a National Health Action Party candidate! It’s the first time out for the NHAP and they have a great big ‘Ace’ on the table, namely the NHS ‘tag’ which is very close to people’s hearts, unlike the so-called ‘big’ three party robots! Good luck to Dr. Iain Maclennan for Eastleigh, honest politics in a very dishonest political arena!
    Laurence Williams
    Sidcup, Kent

  38. Joe Whyte says:

    Why has the National Health Party not being acknowledged as a serious contender?

  39. Steve Willis says:

    Is anybody asking the candidates how they’ll end the statutory exemptions and special privileges in relation to Income Tax and National Insurance enjoyed by Members of Parliament and Government Ministers?

    It doesn’t feature in the Liberal Democrat Fair Tax Campaign, neither have any of the other parties chosen to end these.

    Clearly, we’re not all in the same boat – Parliamentarians appear to be in a luxury yatch with the rest of us consigned to Steerage Class.

  40. Natasha WEYER-BROWN says:

    What about the National Health Action Party?

    Their candidate in Eastleigh, Dr Iain Maclennan, is a local doctor, public health expert and former navy medical officer.

    It is surely necessary for a news channel like yours to HIGHLIGHT the first election sortie of a party whose aims are to restore and improve the NHS – and not allow it to be broken up and sold off for private profit!

  41. Robert Taggart says:

    With John O’Farrell now confirmed as the Liebore candidate – this should be a hoot !
    The joke be on a desperate Liebore party mind !

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