Friday, 1 March 2013

Lessons from Eastleigh: nothing we didn't know already

The by-election at Eastleigh provides a much needed fillip to the LibDems in general and to Nick Clegg in particular after a nasty few weeks. But it tells us nothing new about the state of politics in the UK.

We know that where we work we win. We have worked ceaselessly in Eastleigh over the last couple of decades and built an excellent local party that has delivered when it mattered. We also worked tirelessly during the campaign itself. We are very good at ground wars, and this was a particular case of a good ground war. It was not a surprise that we won.

It would also not have been a surprise if the Conservatives had won. Reasons they did not – they chose a candidate who they needed to keep out of the media spotlight, and their choice backfired on them. It was also clear that they let slip their attack dogs, and some very unpleasant things were said about the Liberal Democrats during the campaign. When people vote for the current Tory party, they know they are voting for a nasty party. A lot of them did, and a lot of them will do in a general election, but not enough will. The lesson for the Tories, if they will heed it, is that slipping to the right does not help their vote. But we knew that already.

UKIP did very well indeed. But a significant proportion of their vote was not a vote for UKIP, it was a “none of the above” vote. (The LibDems won despite no longer getting the “none of the above” vote. That may be a surprise to some people, but LibDems already knew that for some time people have been voting for us not against somebody else.) UKIP's fortunes in this by-election were tied to Labour's. The Labour vote collapsed partly because their choice of candidate backfired but mostly because people still don't have a reason to vote Labour. They do not look like a party ready to form a government. It's only two years to the next general election so they need to move soon. They need to say sooner rather than later, “We made a lot of mistakes, especially near the end of our time in office. We will not make those mistakes again. But the Tories, despite the lessons of our time in office, are continuing to make those mistakes”. But they are still too terrified of the right wing press to make that move. If they don't make it soon, they will not win the next election. In the absence of that move, people who are not loyal Labour voters have no reason to vote for them.

In the absence of a real alternative in Labour, voters went to UKIP. I don't believe it was because they liked UKIP's policies. Those policies are superficially popular. When they come to be properly tested in the heat of a general election, or indeed a (unnecessary) referendum, support will melt. The support went to UKIP as a protest vote. Perhaps by the time of the 2015 general election, Farage will have achieved the momentum of the other comedian Beppo Grillo. It is likely that the internal tensions between sensible Conservatives and their right wing will get worse. It is possible that the Tories will spend more energy fighting each other than fighting the other parties, and it is possible that UKIP will profit from that.

Much of the future is unpredictable – there is a balancing act involving Labour's ability to look as if it is capable of governing, the internal tensions of the Conservative party, and UKIP's ability to continue to mobilise a none of the above vote, and not to implode in its own personal and political contradictions.

But we knew all that before the Eastleigh by-election.

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