Lib Dems win in Eastleigh

Peter KellnerPresident
March 01, 2013, 8:34 AM GMT+0

YouGov President, Peter Kellner, discusses what the Lib Dems win in Eastleigh's by-election means

Of course it matters. Anyone who says it doesn’t is either a spin-doctor for a losing candidate or someone who can’t see beyond the true but trite observation that by-elections are not general elections. Here are my observations.

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1. The Lib Dems should not crow too loudly

Eastleigh was a disaster avoided, not a triumph secured. Its new MP, Mike Thornton, won with 32% of the vote. This is down 14 points on Chris Huhne’s share in 2010. This drop is in line with YouGov’s recent nationwide polls and the second worst in by-elections in the current parliament. Admittedly, most of the other by-elections took place in constituencies where the Lib Dems started off so low that a 14-point drop would have been improbable and, in four contests, impossible. But Eastleigh does NOT represent firm evidence that the party can fend off its national unpopularity by dint of a strong local party, dozens of entrenched councillors, a highly-effective postal vote operation and the influx of thousands of volunteers.

Sometimes the best way to look at by-election figures is to compare them with other by-elections. As it happens, this was the second Eastleigh by-election in less than 20 years. In 1994 the Liberal Democrats gained it from the Conservatives. In that contest, David Chidgey took 44% of the vote. Thornton’s share was 12 points lower: not surprising, but still worrying. Overall, the Lib Dems’ performance was not one that proves they can fend off the Tories in LD-Con contests around England at the next general election – or even that they can retain Eastleigh in 2015.

2. UKIP’s surge is bad but not fatal for the Tories…

Third place in a target seat is no cause to celebrate. Nor is the fact that the Conservatives’ third place and 25% vote share were both the same as in the 1994 by-election. After all, three years after that defeat, the party collapsed to its worst general election result since 1906.

However, the size of the UKIP insurgency, which hurt all the main parties but probably the Tories more than the others, should be kept in perspective. UKIP can rightly point to having done better in Eastleigh than in any previous parliamentary election. Its 28% vote share eclipses its previous best, 22% in Rotherham three months ago. It is surely a force to be reckoned with in future by-elections.

But while UKIP is a new kid on the block, it belongs to a long tradition of mid-term insurgents. By-elections are tailor-made for protest parties. Voters with something to grumble about can express their discontent without handing national power to a party they hate. Thus Tories could switch to UKIP on this occasion knowing that their action could not bring Ed Miliband to office 24 hours later.

Down the years, the Lib Dems and, before them the Liberals, have been the greatest beneficiaries of insurgency voting at dramatic by-elections. That they have not been alone. The short-lived Common Wealth party achieved some spectacular results during the Second World War. In recent decades, the SNP has achieved great things as the insurgent party in Scottish by-elections. Today, with the Lib Dems now in government, UKIP is the obvious repository for protest voters who can’t bring themselves to vote Labour. If UKIP can’t harvest votes now, it never will.

Seen in that context, UKIP’s 28% leaves them still in the second division of insurgent parties. 30%-plus has been routine, 40%-plus far from rare. Sometimes, of course, insurgents become entrenched – as, indeed, the Lib Dems did in Eastleigh after 1994. But the key to this is victory in the initial by-election. I have looked back at Lib Dem by-election surges over the past 25 years. On average, in those seats that the party won in by-elections, it went on to hold on to more than four-fifths of its vote share at the following general election. But in those seats where it came second in the by-election (as UKIP has done in Eastleigh), it went on to lose almost half its vote share at the next general election.

Thus, suppose UKIP’s leader, Nigel Farage, had fought Eastleigh and won last night, he would stand a fair chance of retaining the seat in 2015. Instead, if UKIP’s actual candidate, Diane James, fights the seat again in two years time, history suggests that her best hope is to end up in third place, ahead of Labour.

3. Unless…

However, many Tories, and not only those who can’t stand the Prime Minister, could turn a drama into a crisis. They are not without ammunition. In particular, they have good reason to warn what will happen in next year’s elections to the European Parliament. This could unleash a perfect storm. They are second-order elections with little reason NOT to cast a protest vote; they are fought under proportional representation, which helps non-traditional parties such as UKIP and the Greens; and they concern Britain’s relationship with the European Union, the very issue that brought UKIP into being.

Some months ago, I predicted that these euro-elections would be a battle between Labour and UKIP for first place, with the Conservatives trailing third. Eastleigh changes that. UKIP may not have triumphed by the standards of past insurgencies, but they have done well enough to suggest that, if the euro-elections were held this spring, UKIP would be clear winners, with Labour second and the Tories third.

The question is: how will the Tories react in the short term to this prospect and afterwards if it happens when the elections are held in 15 months’ time? If enough of them panic and engage in internecine strife, then the party really could destroy its chances of victory in the 2015 general election. They should hold their nerve and wait for the UKIP bubble to collapse in 2015, when it struggles to compete under a first-past-the-post system in an election to choose the nation’s government.

4. Labour should not panic either

A supreme Labour optimist could point to the fact that John O’Farrell was the only main-party candidate to increase his share of the vote last night, from 9.6% to 9.8%. Big deal. In truth, Labour’s result was neither here nor there. In recent times it has done far better in most by-elections, notably Corby, which it won from the Tories on a 13% swing. However, it crashed spectacularly when it lost Bradford West to George Galloway and saw its vote share plummet by 20 points.

Such variations are nothing new. Labour lost the hitherto rock-solid seat of Glasgow Govan to the SNP in November 1973 – and yet turfed out the Tories nationally and returned to Government less than four months later. And when Labour has started in third place in a by-election, its vote is routinely squeezed. (As it happens, Eastleigh in 1994 was a rare exception.)

Nor is it true that Eastleigh ‘proves’ that Labour can’t win in the South. In fact, there’s a myth about Labour and the South that needs to be demolished. The myth is that Labour was toxic in the South until Tony Blair came along in the mid-1990s; then made exceptional gains across southern England, only to see those regional advantages squandered under Gordon Brown in 2010.

Now, it’s true that in terms of SEATS, Labour did make big gains in the South in 1997 and suffer big losses in 2010. But in terms of VOTES, Labour support south and west of London rose and fell by almost exactly the same amounts as in northern England in each election. How come? The reason is that Labour has never had many safe seats in southern England outside London; so when Labour is unpopular nationally, most of its southern MPs are vulnerable while most of its northern MPs remain secure.

That leads, of course, to a deeper question – why does Labour have so few southern strongholds? Maybe one day it will find an answer and redress the balance. But Blair didn’t do it – he led a party in a huge broadly based national advance which included the south, but did not display any specific regional appeal.

So Labour’s result in Eastleigh was neither great nor terrible. It told us nothing new about Labour and the South. In fact it told us nothing new about Labour’s prospects at the next general election. Unless the Tories succumb to civil war, I’d still say it’s 50-50 whether Ed Miliband or David Cameron will lead the larger party after May 2015.

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