Some lessons from Eastleigh for the Tory party

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Giles Marshall 7.37am

That the Liberal Democrats won at all is a minor triumph and let no-one tell you otherwise.

This is a party mired in a truly demeaning scandal, whose media operation looked utterly out of shape and whose leader was subject to the sort of scrutiny usually reserved for pariahs and criminals.

Add to this the fact that Nick Clegg and the Lib Dems enjoy the support of not a single major media outlet, but can count on the active hostility of all of them, and this really does start to look like an extraordinary triumph.

No leader since John Major has received quite such a pasting from the right-wing press, and even then some papers maintained a veneer of regard for the party Major was leading.

No such exceptionalism exists for Nick Clegg. Any triumph he gains, any achievement he chalks up, is and always shall be done in the face of an extraordinary hostility from the media.

So how did the Liberal Democrats win in Eastleigh?  I can offer two reasons.  Number one – their organisation on the ground is excellent.  They have a large number of councillors and activists in Eastleigh and they used feet on the ground to considerable effect.  In the age of big media and social network politics, localism still counts and a motivated ground force can still make the difference.  This is what can rescue the Lib Dems from oblivion in any general election.

Number two – they faced the split opposition of the right, and herein lies a serious problem for the Tories. Eastleigh was a Conservative seat not so very long ago, held by a middle-ground Tory of cautiously pro-European opinions who tragically was subject to personal demons.

In this by-election, conscious of the UKIP threat, the local party fielded Maria Hutchings, who has forthright views on immigration, is a determined Eurosceptic and would have been no Cameron patsy if elected to Parliament. She is the dream candidate for the Tory right.

And she lost. Not marginally. She lost substantially, coming in third behind the party whose image she tried to emulate and whose implicit endorsement she tried to achieve.  

The Tory party will try to garner all sorts of lessons from this defeat and most of them will be wrong. The one thing that should stand out is the reality that the right-wing vote in this country is too small to permit of two competing parties. It is arguably too small to permit of even one successful party.

The Tory party’s split identity is becoming ever more harmful, but that is nothing to the rump it will become if the lesson drawn from Eastleigh is voters desire a more unvarnished brand of Tory rightism.

It seems the party will never be right-wing and Eurosceptic enough to appease UKIP supporters without alienating the crucial centrist vote that all parties need to sustain themselves in government. This is a simple matter of electoral arithmetic.

As for UKIP, they should enjoy their triumph. They didn’t win, but they scored their best by-election result to date.

However, it isn’t quite as great a triumph as Nigel Farage is trumpeting. At a time when both governing parties are massively unpopular, this party of protest failed to wrest a seat from them.

In their heyday, the Social Democratic Party – a party of protest that sought to extract voters from the Labour Party in much the same way as UKIP does from the Tories – managed to pull off extraordinary by-election victories in both Conservative and Labour seats. They did it when the governing Tories were pursuing unpopular economic measures. And they never managed to translate their extraordinary by-election success into general election success, descending into third party misery each time.  

UKIP’s achievement is weaker than the old SDP’s. If Farage’s lot can’t win a seat like Eastleigh in a by-election, with protest votes aplenty, then they shan’t win anything in a general election.

Eastleigh has produced a victor, whatever the gloom that the national pundits may be pronouncing for all parties. That victor, to the dismay of Conservatives, is their coalition partner. It will keep the coalition going, but it offers no hope to the dominant party.

Follow Giles on Twitter @gilesmarshall

If you’re in Eastleigh and you’re reading this, do something worthwhile and VOTE HUTCHINGS today

Craig Barrett 11.02am

Another Thursday, another by-election. Following the resignation in disgrace of Chris Huhne, voters are today going to the polls in a constituency that has been a tightly fought battleground between the Tories and the Lib Dems since the previous by-election, in 1994. A Lib Dem majority of fewer than 4,000 votes belies a seat where the Lib Dems have a very active party machine and hold all of the local council seats.

Needless to say, all parties in contention have thrown everything at it.  UKIP’s sole spokesman, Nigel Farage, declined to stand again in the seat which he fought in 1994, presumably thinking that he couldn’t win and to fail to win once again would be a humiliation too far.

The Labour party has John O’Farrell, former joke-writer for Gordon Brown, who has been roundly criticised for his comments lamenting the fact that the IRA failed to murder Lady Thatcher in Brighton in 1984.

The Lib Dems have selected a local councillor, Mike Thornton, who, in best Liberal Democrat tradition, has voted in favour of housing developments which his leaflets suggests he opposes.

Our candidate, Maria Hutchings, is a working mother with four kids, a genuine local campaigner whose campaign has been masterminded by the energetic, relentless, indomitable Michael Fabricant, whose endless stream of tweeted photographs shows the entire Parliamentary party (and their cousins and their aunts, not to mention their dogs) has visited the constituency to ensure that Maria’s message of being a local campaigner who can be trusted has been strongly made to every voter. I haven’t been down myself but my reading of her message is that she has sound Conservative views and will be a hard-worker for her constituents. The race appears to be too close to call.

My suspicion is that the biggest winner out of all of this will be SouthWest Trains.  Nevertheless, if you’re in Eastleigh and you are reading this, do something worthwhile today: VOTE HUTCHINGS.

Follow Craig on Twitter @mrsteeduk