An odd wind blows through Eastleigh

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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.

Is Corby really the ‘bellwether constituency’ we think?

The count in Corby last Friday: will it mean anything in 2015?

Tucked away near the Canadian border are two small towns, Dixville Notch and Hart’s Location, that do not attract much attention for the majority of the American political cycle. However, on the first Tuesday of November every four years, newspaper reporters, bloggers and TV pundits turn the media spotlight on the 44 residents who dutifully turn out to vote at midnight as predictors of the race across the country.

However, two small towns with less than 100 residents in the Northern most part of America are hardly likely to predict the outcome of such a divided nation as America. The Latino vote was regarded as one of the key deciding factors in the race as it now stands at 16.7 per cent of the electorate. In contrast, the Latino population of New Hampshire as a whole is currently only 2.9 per cent of the state’s electorate. Therefore how can a New England state with a more traditional white anglo saxon protestant (WASP) demographic represent the increasingly diversity in the rest of the country?

There is no such thing as a ‘bellwether state’ in American politics. America is so hopelessly riven apart by class, wealth, race, age and gender it is impossible to make any clear predictions about the outcome of any election (unless you’re Nate Silver). That is why the attempts to find the equivalent British constituency seems so absurd.

In yesterday’s Prime Minister’s Questions, Leader of the Opposition Ed Miliband confidently announced that last week’s by-election in Corby was the proof that the public were waiting to return Labour to Number 10 in 2015. Ever since the Labour candidate pulled off an 8000 vote swing in the Corby by-election last week, Labour have been crowing as if they’ve already won the election in two and a half years time.

For instance during, the new Labour MP for Corby, Andy Sawford, who won 17,267 votes or 48 per cent of the vote (turnout out was 45 per cent), said during his victory speech:

‘Make no mistake, since this constituency existed, no party has formed a government without winning here”.

Of course, Corby has returned the subsequently winning party to the House at every election for the past thirty years. However, given it is defined as a swing seat this is hardly surprising. The only times the seat has been won narrowly were in 1987, 1992 and 2010. These election years coincide with the years the Conservative party either took or held onto power by the skin of their teeth. All Corby reflects is what any national poll will tell you is the political mood of the nation.

Rather than acting as a sort of political Cassandra predicting doom for the Conservatives in 2015, the Corby by-election has far more to with how the polls are standing now rather than the exit polls two and a half years from now. Instead of being ‘Britain’s Hart’s Location’, it is just another example of a constituency falling in line with the mood of the general public.

Therefore, there is still all to play for in the second half of parliament. The news that the Conservatives have hired a controversial new campaign manager, Lynton Crosby, who ran both of Boris Johnson’s successful mayoral campaigns, shows they are not given up the fight just yet.

The worse thing the Labour party could do now is get complacent. Although the polls are projecting a small majority or at the very least a Lib-Lab pact if the Tories can get the economy to turn around by May 2015 (after all unemployment is slowly starting to fall), Labour will have a serious fight on their hands.

When the Conservatives were (half) voted into office in 2010, it was because the public longed for a new sense of fairness at the top. After the individualistic, debt laden years under New Labour people were longing for perceived ‘fairness’ after the banking sector was seen to have bankrupted the economy without any consequences.

The public were (almost) sold on Conservatives’ ‘We’re not Labour’ sales pitch in 2010 but they are going to need more to believe in Labour than their current offering ‘We’re not the Tories’, especially if the economy improves. Their victory in Corby was simply short term exasperation with the long term plans of government.

Nor will be signal the end of the Liberal Democrat party. Although, they are still being hammered in the polls and managed to lose their deposit in Corby (in 2010 they did not lose there deposit in any of the 650 seats they contested) but at the opposite end of the country in my very own Rossett council ward of Harrogate they managed the biggest council election swing since 2010.

Now here’s the thing about Rossett: its the Toriest ward, in the Toriest town in the Toriest part of Northern England. During the 2001 election, the first one we had since we moved here, the then councillor called on my Marxist mother during the day and assumed she didn’t understand how the election worked because she said she’d never vote Tory.

Suffice to say, up until last week it was pretty Tory. Now it has its very first Liberal Democrat councillor after a 25 per cent swing. And although UKIP did better than they usually did (127 compared to the Lib Dem’s 897 and the Conservative’s 704), the Labour vote fell by a third from approximately 300 to 106.

This is partly because it was a very local issue driven campaign (and the Conservative candidate was, somewhat snobbishly, dismissed because she live on the other side of town) and the Liberal Democrat’s aggressive courting of the Labour vote.

So what do the results of these by-elections mean for the fate of the next general election in 2015? Probably nothing. Whether its Corby or Dixville Notch the political classes are determined to see signs at every turn. All these results have demonstrated is how confused and divided the electorate is.

It is easy to look for a road map that will tell us want’s ahead but it is ultimately pointless.  We cannot keep wasting our time  analysing the political situation in present instead of looking to the future for the fresh ideas and new leaders that will get us out of the political doldrums.