An odd wind blows through Eastleigh


ChrisHuhneRichardIII
Image Courtesy of Peter Brookes at the Times

Guido Fawkes was gleefully rubbing his hands together yesterday as Chris Huhne surveyed the burning wreckage of his ministerial career, his home life and probably his personal freedom.

While the remains of one would-be king were being exhumed from Leicester social services’ car park, another is watching his career committed to the ground.

A driving licence! A driving licence! My kingdom for a driving licence it would seem.

However, in the 24 hours since Huhne changed his plea the focus has moved from him to his constituency and the uphill battle for political soul of the nation. Or something like that.

Comparing the Eastleigh by-election to the Battle of the Bosworth Field might be slightly over doing it as far as shoehorned political metaphors go but as the battle extinguished the Yorkist claim to the throne in all but name, so could this election prove decisive for the Liberal Democrats.

This is, in real terms, the first time they’ve been properly tested in more than a year. Forget the by-elections where they didn’t take it seriously and lost their deposit. In Rotherham, they only campaigned in one council ward because they were hoping to concentrate their resources to get a council seat further down the line. This, of course, rather backfired but it wasn’t the crushing defeat everyone else imagined.

Over the past year we have seen an unusual number of by-elections but the Lib Dems have not really been challenged until they are faced with a seat they could actually win. Eastleigh, despite being historically Tory, should be a Lib Dem slam dunk. With Huhne and David Chigley before him the seat has rested in the party’s hands for nearly 20 years. They control the council and the attitude of the local people on Channel 4 News last night suggested Eastleigh is about as indentured Lib Dem as any one seat could be.

However, with the Liberal Democrats current, continued, unpopularity and only a majority of 4000, they’ll have their work cut out for them.

Eastleigh could also just be the test piece for each political party that Corby wasn’t as they try to prove themselves as the party which will win the next election.

Liberal Democrats: They need a win. The Liberal Democrats’ supporters are deserting them in droves and they are fighting like cats and dogs with their coalition partners. The atmosphere amongst grassroots has become a case of counting down the days till they can get out of Government. Contrary to popular opinion, the Liberal Democrats are not likely to be finished as a political force at the next election. But they will be severely wounded and face substantial losses to the parliamentary party they need to steal themselves against. If they lose Eastleigh it may be a step too far.

Given the current situation, the grassroots could live with losing a few Lib Dem-Labour marginals. But to lose a seat like this would should dent any faith in the leadership there is left. The gallows humour currently flying around the party could turn into all out revolt. Much like the Conservative Party cannot possibly win the next election while they are still cleaved in half over Europe and gay marriage, the Liberal Democrats cannot afford to go into the next election preaching their faith in Nick Clegg when they openly don’t believe in him themselves.

Conservatives: Eastleigh is winnable for the Tories. Despite losing control 19 years ago, the seat is historically Tory even if it is in a relatively working class area. However it is going to take some real effort. Many commentators are saying the Conservatives need to put up a charismatic, big hitter- someone who could possibly be tipped for a ministerial post somewhere down the line rather than a local grandee that has paid their dues. However, the danger is Eastleigh won’t want another Louise Mensch. Marginals like Corby and Eastleigh thrive with a charismatic MP who actually cares about their local area rather than someone using it as a stepping stone to greater things. Unfortunately for the Tory party at the moment, they are struggling to find bankable candidates. It seems they are stuck between a rock of lacklustre locals and a hard place of upstart A-Listers. They only way to win would to somehow find a middle ground.

Similarly, gay marriage could be an issue. Nigel Farage’s reluctance to commit to standing there demonstrates even UKIP know they’re no real threat in this particular marginal. While Europe is a relative non-issue amongst the electorate (especially since the announcement of the ‘maybe referendum’), the gay marriage row has made the party look even more out of touch. The Tories will be hit hard by the regular voters who perceive the party as out of step with popular opinion and the local Tory activists who may decide to stay at home in protest.

Labour: This by-election provides a dilemma for the cash strapped party. They will not win, but they could dramatically improve their vote share if they really put the effort in. While they languished far behind in third place at the last election, they can’t afford not to campaign in this election because they still have to beat UKIP to remain credible as the favourite for Number 10 in 2015. With a bit of effort and a good candidate this should not be too difficult. Given the unpopularity of the two Government parties, they could even squeeze second place.

If they were to push ahead of the Tories, or even the Liberal Democrats, it would probably be the best publicity for the Labour message they’ve had since Ed Miliband won the leadership. It would prove they are on the up and Miliband in particular is a credible as a future leader. But, will a cash strapped party want to waste resources on what would be a short term gain? In the long run it may be better to invest properly in their policy review so Ed Miliband’s promises of ‘One Nation Labour’ would not seem so paper thin. A comparative victory in Eastleigh will do nothing to ameliorate their continued lack of vision.

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Published by

Caroline Mortimer @CJMortimer

Freelance journalist.

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