Eastleigh by-election: my first thoughts

by Stephen Tall on March 1, 2013

Let’s consider the backdrop: we’re polling at half the level we were in 2010; the previous MP, Chris Huhne, was forced to resign after pleading guilty to perverting the course of justice and faces a prison sentence; we’ve just endured a week of torrid publicity. And yet we’ve held on.

It’s true that, in some ways, Eastleigh was a good seat for us to have to contest. The party is immensely strong in the area, holding every council seat, and runs a popular council.

However, what has been immensely encouraging has also been the clear evidence Lib Dem activists remain keenly motivated. The level of enthusiasm – hundreds, thousands of volunteers visiting, phoning, donating over this 3-week campaign – has been startlingly positive.

Partly, it’s the chance to put across the Lib Dem message. But it’s also been about the chance to let off steam against a Tory party – personified by Maria Hutchings – which has reverted to type: anti-EU, anti-immigrant, anti-welfare.

That’s not the ‘liberal Conservative’ party David Cameron promised to lead. And in reality he no longer leads his party. Instead he is dragged along in the wake of his rebellious, discontented, Ukip-inclined backbenchers.

Ukip is the only other party which can view Eastleigh with pleasure. Assisted by a talented candidate, Diane James (who I’d suggest was a bigger vote-winner for the party than Nigel Farage would’ve been), they have shown themselves to be an effective harvester of ‘None of the above’ voters.

The chances of them topping the Euro 2014 poll seem greatly increased. There must also now be the very real possibility that Ukip could win a by-election if the right seat comes up.

Clearly they have taken votes from all three main parties in Eastleigh – but it is the Tories who will feel the threat most keenly. Of course, if they’d campaigned for AV they’d have very little to worry about. But then not for nothing were they once characterised as ‘The Stupid Party’.

As for Labour, where were they? (And frankly who cares?) They’ll take no pleasure in finishing a poor fourth. But they’ve no need to panic either. This was not their by-election and they knew it. They can win a general election without winning seats like Eastleigh.

Most Labour members I’ve spoken to were half-cheering on the Lib Dems. Partly, yes, to mischief-make against the Coalition. But also partly because, once again, an anti-Tory coalition is beginning to form. That isn’t the same as saying a Lib-Lab pact it’s on the cards – there is still a fair amount of lingering bitterness on both sides – but we are beginning to recognise a common enemy: reactionary conservatism, whether in the guise of Ukip or the Tories.

Oh, and one other loser in all this: the right-wing press, which has tried shamelessly to exploit the allegations against Chris Rennard for the political gain of the Tories. To be clear, Channel 4′s Cathy Newman deserves nothing but praise for her original investigation. Nor do I have any complaints at the timing, however unfortunate it has been from the perspective of the Eastleigh campaign. The most important thing in all this is that we as a party find out the truth about these allegations, and act to put our house in order.

But the idea the party has anything to learn about how to treat women with respect from the Daily Mail (or the Telegraph) is ludicrous. Their onslaught in the past week has been nakedly politically motivated – and so transparently that the public appears to have shrugged its shoulders. (Perhaps letting the leadership off-the-hook more than they deserved.) The TV news channels may take their cue from the press. It turns out the voters are a bit more independently minded.

* Stephen Tall is Co-Editor of Liberal Democrat Voice, a Research Associate for the liberal think-tank CentreForum, and also writes at his own site, The Collected Stephen Tall.