By-elections come and go. Their significance depends on where they are; party orientation before the election and the potential result. By-elections, however, have gotten a whole lot more interesting in recent years. By-elections in safe seats are usually predicable – they usually stay the same colour after the by-election as they were before- but marginal seats are very different, as recent contests have shown.
As the November Corby by-election showed, even a newly gained seat for a party can quickly change hands. It is one of the rough and smooth areas for party leaders. Winning a by-election seat in mid-term can boost confidence for the next general election, or show the weaknesses of your party. One thing that is certain is that Eastleigh will be very interesting.
It has been Lib Dem for 19 years (8 of those Huhne). But even if it has stayed with the yellows for nearly two decades, the majority Huhne had in 2010 was only around 3,000 – not overly safe. Worse still, coalition politics will become much sharper as the Tories and Lib Dems will go head to head for the seat. A win for the blues would fulfil a Tory ambition. A yellow triumph would add safety. A red gain would be another seat added to their tally of by-elections. A UKIP victory would be a historic one. A lot could be gained (and lost) from this, so if Cameron, Clegg, Miliband, and Farage want Eastleigh enough, they need to put on a strong fight. Time is ticking away and so is the race to the finish line.
My prediction? A new Lib Dem MP with a smaller majority heading into 2015. The seat is loyal to the party, it still has a council which is Lib Dem controlled, and the seat is one which Clegg can usually count on. I would say that the Conservative vote will be split by a good UKIP candidate, something which could save the Lib Dems from defeat. And instead of a few thousand majority, I would predict the next Eastleigh MP having a few hundred majority – regardless of party colour.
An issue for the Lib Dem candidate is going to be that he will need to convince voters (in a small period of time) that he is standing on behalf of the party, and voters shouldn’t be ticking or not ticking the box for him based on recent events with Huhne. They should be looking at Huhne’s performance as a constituency MP for the past 8 years and what the local Lib Dems are offering, as well as his personal offering as a candidate.
Similarly, an issue for the Conservative candidate will be that she will have to really connect with voters and try to show that a seat which is yellow through and through is better off with a Conservative. It will be no easy task, but she came second in 2010 and she could become a highly admired Tory MP if she is successful in gaining a seat back after 19 years.
The Labour candidate needs to bring something special to the by-election. Special in the instance that they can drive voters away from both Conservative and Lib Dems candidates in order to gain a seat that can support Miliband in the Commons.
The UKIP candidate should have been Farage. He knows the seat and would have been able to use Europe as a big pull-factor to gain votes. Instead, he declined the opportunity. But, regardless of whom their candidate will be, this by-election could well hang in the balance of the UKIP candidate; they could decide to either split the Tory vote to allow a Lib Dem or Labour MP to win or they could field an extremely strong candidate to attempt to beat all the other parties. Doing so would win them their first elected MP and would cause havoc for the Conservatives.
Another thing which is interesting is that this seat in Hampshire has the power to bring the coalition to a brief halt. Cameron wants the seat, Clegg wants the seat, and if one of them or both of them don’t get the seat – there will be difficult questions from their parties. Both the Conservatives and the Lib Dems desperately want to turn around their by-election fortunes.
I end this article with a thought. It was 1994, when the Liberal Democrats won this seat in a by-election from the Conservatives. It could well be 2013 when they lose it in a by-election to the Conservatives. Clegg can’t afford to make mistakes.
By Sam Kenward