A by-election generally leaves most of the parties disappointed, usually all but one. But though Thursday’s Eastleigh by-election was said to have given most reason for optimism, it could also be described as unsatisfactory for all.
The Lib-Dems held onto the seat despite their sitting MP being forced to resign due to being convicted of a criminal offence, and the election taking place as a sleaze scandal involving the party’s ex-Chief Executive played out in public. Good reason for Nick Clegg to gloat for months to come, you’d think. Yet commonly seats forced to vote again when their sitting MP resigns return the same party a second time. More tellingly, their share of the vote dropped by almost 15%. This has been a Lib-Dem seat since 1994 but only the split of the vote on the right means it remains so.
Labour have never won Eastleigh, and their vote has been declining since the recent high of 1997. Yet they managed to halt the slide with a small increase in their share of the vote. Labour would say they never expected to win this, and avoiding a collapse in their vote was about as much as they could hope for. But that ignores the fact that for the first time since 1997 Labour were in opposition, and in opposition to a troubled, schizophrenic government who are under more pressure at every turn. A protest vote was on the cards but Labour weren’t able to capitalise at all. To be fair if Labour were in a one-horse race here they’d come 2nd, but to come a poor 4th and show no sign of picking up support from the election in which they were booted out of government after 13 years, when their vote was likely to be as low as it would ever get, is disappointing by any measure.
As an aside, it is a theme among some leftists that Labour has deserted the agenda the party was formed to promote; namely that of the membership of trade unions, who still largely fund Labour despite the shift in the party’s emphasis. The common complaint about modern politics is that there is no difference between the 3 major parties, and this can be blamed on Labour’s shift to occupy the centre ground, leaving the opinion and priorities of the left often unspoken and usually unrepresented. The question is sometimes raised, why don’t the trade unions start again and create a party which will stand up for them in Parliament? A broad coalition of the left might not sweep to power as New Labour did in 1997, but at least millions of people would feel their thoughts were being considered in the argument. The Trade Unionist and Socialist Coalition racked up the total of 62 votes at Eastleigh. Admittedly, a constituency where even Labour themselves are distrusted is not likely to be fertile ground for traditional socialists, but the good news for Labour is that the TUSC is a long way from developing into a genuine electoral threat. They were insignificant in this election and unless the trade unions themselves transfer funding from Labour to the TUSC or another new party, that isn’t going to change any time soon.
UKIP were portrayed as the big winners in this election. They came from 4th last time to a narrow 2nd and increased their vote by almost 25%. The improvement came not in a safe Tory seat, where they might be expected to appeal to more of the voters, but in one fairly solidly in Lib Dem control. Voters from the incumbents leapfrogged over the Tories to the more right-wing party, and just as many were gained from the Tories themselves. They will hope that this cements them as a 4th major party. The better they do, the more people will take them seriously, a self-perpetuating spiral. They will hope their improvement will persuade the Tories to agree to a pact not to oppose each other in certain seats, something which would almost guarantee them MPs in the next Parliament. Even so there is still bad news for them in this result. They didn’t win. Up against both parties of an unpopular coalition government, they were unable to translate the mid-term protest vote into victory. They were helped by a poor Tory candidate, and a more impressive one of their own, but perhaps if the nationally recognised Nigel Farage had been the candidate they may have won. We’ll never know. They concentrated a lot of their campaigning on specifically local issues but the fact remains that a party best known for their anti-EU anti-immigration stance were unable to win a constituency whose population classifies themselves as 92% ‘White British’. They are likely to find that as that percentage falls in other seats the constituents become less receptive to their message. In short, they may not get another chance like this again and they blew it.
The Tories are possibly the only one of the main parties who will find it difficult to find a silver lining to the result. Their strategy of pushing the Lib-Dems into discrediting themselves among their support has gained no headway. Or rather their own vote collapsed just as much in a seat they’d be targetting to win to gain a majority in Parliament. The best they could say is that they haven’t lost popularity relative to their coalition partners, and put the 14% drop in their vote down to mid-term disgruntlement. Apart from that the by-election was a disaster for them. They were overtaken by what is basically a single-issue party of the right. Will they be tempted to move right to neutralise the threat of UKIP? For a mainstream party to go further right than the Tories’ current free-market neoliberal position, cutting social security benefits, looking to privatise the NHS, would make it difficult for them to maintain a stance of working for the good of all. David Cameron says they won’t do it, and they tried it before this by-election anyway. The Tory attempt to steal UKIP’s thunder by promising an in/out referendum on the EU in the next Parliament failed miserably. It seems that by adopting UKIP’s policies the Tories didn’t take their ground but lent legitimacy to them in the eyes of the natural Tory voter. An endorsement of your agenda by your closest rivals is worth a hundred leaflet campaigns.
George Osborne’s now widely discredited economic policies leave his position hanging on his reputation as a shrewd political tactician. The rise of UKIP here might shred that too. The 2010 plan to draw the Lib-Dems into coalition by promising a referendum on AV, but then to ensure that referendum didn’t pass by campaigning strongly against it was an attempt to ensure headline Tory policies passed from a minority position while Lib-Dem ones did not, disillusioning their voting base and activists so that the Lib-Dem vote collapsed at the next general election. This doesn’t seem to have had the planned effect. In addition, if UKIP do develop into a genuine alternative to the Tories then the right will have their vote split, perhaps forever, as Labour have seen the left vote split since the 80s and the defection of the SDP from the party’s ranks. In that situation, they may find that AV would have been very useful in maintaining their MP numbers as they narrowly lose a number of seats they would previously have regarded as relatively safe.
Despite Cameron’s insistence that he won’t take his party rightwards don’t of course mean he won’t do one thing whilst saying another. He is under pressure, and he has shown before he will play to opinion within his party rather than the nation overall if it strengthens his position as party leader. That usually means pandering to the Tory right wing. Whether that’ll enable him to ride out the crisis with his Uni wingman at No 11 is by no means certain.