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!’

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