This follows on from part one of the by-election report.
So the 2013 Eastleigh election goes down in history as a by-election which was very eventful. And this was reflected in the results. But let’s look at the figures from this by-election compared with the 1994 by-election (the year the Lib Dems won the seat from the Conservatives). The Lib Dems won a moderately safe Tory seat in 1994 with a majority of 9,239; this ended the Tory run in the seat of nearly 40 years. The 1994 by-election also saw the Tories knocked to third place and Labour in second. This time, they got knocked to third with UKIP in second. An interesting thing about by-elections at mid-term is that they are not a full term so the MP goes to the polls again at the general election to try and win a full five year term.
In 1997, the Lib Dem MP David Chidgey did this. He got a much smaller majority of 754. This was due to the Conservatives pushing their share of the vote up by 5,000 votes from the by-election three years before. This continued – Lib Dems majority rising and dipping with the Blues on the attack. In 2005, Chidgey decided to allow someone else to stand for the party- Chris Huhne. It was not an easy first term for Mr Huhne as he got a majority of only 568. However, the 2010 saw an election which changed Eastleigh politics. Huhne was re-elected with his majority over the Tories increased by about 2,500 votes. The Tory vote was up but so was the Lib Dem vote which led Eastleigh (and it’s MP) to be a key part of the Liberal Democrats and the coalition government. On this occasion, Labour fared badly, gaining only half of the 10,000 votes they received in 2005.
So what are the effects for the leaders of the parties and what are the signs for 2015? Well, Clegg will be pleased to keep the seat as it takes the pressure off temporarily, but Huhne’s trial is yet to reach a verdict and the Rennard Enquiry could still do some damage to the national image of the party. The Tories have been defeated again for this seat – it won’t affect the make-up of the Commons too much but Cameron wanted to win it as a statement that they can gain a majority in 2015. Labour were the underdogs here. They had no wider expectation of winning originally so they had nothing to lose. But they tried hotting up the election with Miliband starting to show some decisiveness with plans on mansion tax. It’s seats like Eastleigh that he needs to win in 2015 so he can gain a majority, and in mid-term when the Opposition’s share of the vote needs to go up, it hasn’t. Something is wrong here and Miliband needs to fix it quickly. UKIP were also underdogs in Eastleigh. They made a point of giving their best fight to try and come at least third. Farage said ‘that even though the party isn’t as big as the others, they can still give it their best fight’ ... and they did. They showed that UKIP can really pose some risk and cause some damage to the Tories and other parties. With this result being superb in UKIP’s favour, I am sure that lurking somewhere in the current list of Lib Dem constituencies could be some seats that fall to UKIP in 2015.
We mustn’t, however, forget the other ten candidates who gave good fights. They didn’t get as much media attention as the main four did, as it was a very serious by-election in Westminister for the coalition parties, but regardless of that, they gave the people of Eastleigh a choice. Indeed, the share of votes for some other candidates went up since 2010 and they gave some more options to those who have lost faith in the main parties.
Turnout was a big thing as I mentioned in my previous article. By-elections like this which are integral to parties like the Lib Dems and the Tories are ones where more votes cast = the better and clearer picture parties get. In 2010, the turnout was 53,650 whereas now in 2013, it was 41,616. That is just over 12,000 votes down. This is probably due to some voters having decided not to vote at all because of confidence loss with Huhne and the Liberal Democrats and what has happened in terms of lack of economic growth since 2010.
This by-election was a very important one for party morale. Lib Dems are happy. They have Mike Thornton who is now an MP on the backbenches. They beat off all the other thirteen candidates and despite a reduced majority they were victorious. UKIP were predicted a solid position at third or fourth; they are gaining political momentum, they finished second. By 2015, they could well be political dynamite, and if the event of a hung parliament falls again, then UKIP could be instrumental. Cameron and his candidate were both lost for words at finishing third. They thought and looked like they were going to finish a strong second or even take the seat but unfortunately for them, Labour, UKIP and the Lib Dems were all there to block any chance of the Tories gaining Eastleigh. Labour finished worse than 2010 in the seat. There are a lot of things the Conservatives and Labour can draw from this – how to deal with the UKIP threat. How to make bad economic news somehow make you appealing on the ballot. How to show decisiveness with just two years until the next election. The Lib Dems can draw lessons as well - they still have a weakening national image and questionable leadership, but they still draw votes.
So what can we say as a final conclusion to this? How do we sum it all up? It certainly was an interesting by-election which showed flaws (and positives) in the main four parties. It showed that a seat which has been your colour for many years might not always stay your colour. You still have to give it a fight. It also shows that people aren’t happy with the current situation politically or economically and the main three need to do lots more to make sure that UKIP don’t steal seats come the next election.
And finally, it shows the cut and thrust of party politics – the idea that the governance of this country was put on hold for three weeks so the two parties which make the government could fight each other. If this was a taster, then 2015 will be one of the most memorable general elections on record.
By Sam Kenward