Lib Dems Hold On to Eastleigh
I have not posted for a few days due to being away and also spending some of my free time at Eastleigh campaigning in the by-election campaign. This was always going to be an interesting by-election whatever the result. As the campaign developed it became clear that what was already a close contest between the Conservatives and Lib Dems would be hard fought and uncertain until the end.
The background to the by-election was not exactly good for the Lib Dems, having the sitting MP resign after admitting lying over a speeding conviction, and an unfolding national scandal over allegations of former Lib Dem Chief Exec Lord Rennard. However, the Lib Dems have historically been very good at fighting by-elections and they hold every single Council seat in the constituency, giving them an organisational and activist base which was unrivalled by any other party.
On our side this was the best organised by election campaign I have been involved with. Some I have been to have been frankly shambolic and I have left the campaign centre with despair. That was not the same this time. The team running the show always had plenty for the hundreds of visiting activists to do and good quality literature for us to deliver. Maria Hutchings was a down to earth local candidate who had fought the seat in 2010. Despite some alleged “gaffes” I found good recognition and support for her on the doorstep. I do think however that she should have been at the two hustings meetings, thus avoiding the media storm around “missing Maria”.
I refrained from posting on the campaign because I found it impossible to come to any firm conclusion as to the likely outcome. Of course I hoped for a win and was encouraged by the straws in the wind. The areas where I was helping out were well covered with posters for Conservative candidate Maria Hutching, with very few for the Lib Dems. Interestingly there were more for UKIP than the Lib Dems!
However, it beacme obvious that the constituency was behaving in different ways in different parts. Colleagues helping out in Eastleigh town centre reported strong Lib Dem, Labour and UKIP support, with signs of late switching from Lib Dem to UKIP. In the areas I was knocking up there was pretty solid support for Maria with just a few former Conservatives saying they had voted UKIP.
The eventual narrow Lib Dem win on a 58% turnout was in line with the betting and polling findings and holds lessons for all the parties:
Liberal Democrats – they held onto the seat that they had held for almost 20 years since the 1994 by election but with a greatly reduced vote share and actual number of votes, despite the higher than normal turnout for a by-election. It would be churlish to deny the fact that a win by one vote is a win but to see their vote fall by 14.5% will be a cause of concern in party HQ. The narrowness of their lead over both UKIP and the Conservatives means that the seat remains a top Conservative target for the 2015 General Election, when UKIP’s vote share will almost certainly fall back very significantly.
UKIP – they did much better than I and most commentators expected. They seem to have had a late surge to achieve a very respectable second place with around 28% of the vote and their best result in a Parliamentary by-election to date. With the Lib Dems now in government UKIP appears to have become the repository of mid-term protest votes; the old role of the Lib Dems. Lord Ashcroft’s polling of electors who had already cast their votes suggests that UKIP took votes pretty evenly from the Conservatives and Lib Dems, as well as from previous non-voters.
Conservatives – a disappointing but not disastrous result. The difference between the Conservatives and Lib Dems was about the same as at the 2010 General Election with the difference being the surge in UKIP support to push the Conservatives narrowly into third place. About half of the 2010 support appears to have either shifted across to UKIP or stayed at home. This is hardly unusual in a mid-term by election but will be disappointing to the huge army of party volunteers who descended on the constituency to help. The 14% fall in vote share was about the same as experienced by our Coalition partners.
Labour – despite claims of being a “One Nation” party and picking a minor celebrity candidate, Labour performed no better than in their disastrous 2010 General Election campaign. Their vote share was up just 0.2% despite being the main party of opposition at Westminster. Whilst no-one expected Labour to win the seat, they might have expected to increase their vote share to demonstrate that they are a national party with appeal in all parts of the UK.
Overall this was an exciting by-election. Rarely is the final result unclear for so long and decided so close to the wire. The Lib Dems and UKIP can justifiably celebrate but it was a solid result for the Conservatives as well. Labour will no doubt argue that this was not their natural territory and they held their vote share. Peter Kellner has a very measured analysis of the by-election here which readers may find interesting.
Does this tell us much about 2015? I don’t think so.
Lib Dem (Thornton) – 13,342 (32.1%) -14.5%
UKIP (James) – 11,571 (27.8%) +24.2%
Cons (Hutchings) – 10,559 (25.4%) -14%
Lab (O’Farrell) – 4,088 (9.8%) +0.2%
Others – 2,056
Turnout – 58.2%
LD Majority – 1,771