Thursday 28th February 2013 | 20:00
The Knowledge: Eastleigh Questions
Mark Gettleson looks at the questions which the Eastleigh by-election might answer
WORDS: MARK GETTLESON
Don’t read too much into by-elections, but there are three things Eastleigh may tell us...
1. Will the Lib Dem ‘75 by-election’ strategy for 2015 work?
The Liberal Democrats languish in the national polls at a low not seen since soon after their formation (Paddy Ashdown is keen to point out they once appeared as just an asterisk for ‘no discernible support’ under his leadership). If repeated at a general election, current figures would see the Party all but wiped out on a uniform national swing. Not so, say their campaigns department, who point to the fact that (a) the vast majority of Liberal Democrat MPs face Conservative not Labour challenges and (b) popular incumbents and candidates have the capacity to create 75 localised microclimates, immune from national woes. Both of these factors are typified in Eastleigh, where Lib Dems enjoy extraordinary local dominance.
But the seat is also an extreme example, a rare place where the Party has made progress against both main parties since 2010, irrespective of the antics of the local MP. Moreover, voters' priorities in a by-election are qualitatively different: less about supporting a party or government, but simply one of picking someone to represent them in a fairly unchanged Parliament. This is borne out by the polling that shows the Conservatives with a healthy lead when it comes to jobs and the economy, the issue likely to decide the general election, but fairly irrelevant to this contest.
2. Will Labour supporters in Lib Dem/Tory marginals continue to vote yellow?
Since 1997, Lib Dem campaigns have been adept at persuading huge numbers of traditionally Labour voters to lend them their support in order to fend off the dreaded Conservatives. In Eastleigh, for instance, a well-trained Labour vote fell from 27% in 1997 to less than 10% in 2010. One of the great Conservative hopes in their ‘40:40 strategy’ is that a tactical unwind, in which anti-Coalition voters return to Mr Miliband in droves, will push seats into the blue column.
But what if, as Eastleigh polling indicates, this fails to take place and Labour supporters continue to lend their votes to their local Lib Dem? Again, this seems more likely to happen in a by-election, where there is no prospect of the result putting Labour back into Government. But in marginals from Wells to Berwick, could the message of ‘vote for me to stop the Tories’ still ring true in 2015? The fact that the Lib Dems managed to call an extaordinary 47% of Eastleigh who backed them in 2010 suggests that where they can directly make the case, they could hold the line with Labour supporters.
3. Were the Conservatives tactically right to oppose AV?
Nationally, the Coalition has led to a degree of unity on the Left not seen in a generation and a fragmentation of the Right. As Lord Ashcroft put it, “Labour’s core support plus left-leaning former Lib Dems could theoretically give Ed Miliband close to 40 % of the vote without needing to get out of bed.” As such, perhaps the single biggest electoral advantage the Conservatives had in late 20th century politics has been undone.
It was this advantage and a perception that Labour, Lib Dem and Green voters could gang up to beat Conservatives in a preferential system. But isn’t that all a bit 2009? Would it not have been of greater advantage for Conservatives to allow a Right, fragmented by the rise of UKIP, to unite behind their candidates. Mr Farage’s party may subside by 2015 and it’s true many of their votes come from Labour, Lib Dems and people who don’t usually show up – but a result in which the Conservative deficit in Eastleigh, should this come to pass, was many times less than the UKIP showing will raise a few eyebrows in CCHQ.