Yesterday’s by-election in Eastleigh, while perhaps lacking great strategic importance, seems to have summarised the state of British politics, half way into our experimental coalition. The results were as follows:
Mike Thornton (Liberal Democrat) 13,342 (32.06%, -14.48%)
Diane James (UKIP) 11,571 (27.80%, +24.20%)
Maria Hutchings (Conservative) 10,559 (25.37%, -13.96%)
John O’Farrell (Labour) 4,088 (9.82%, +0.22%)
Danny Stupple (Independent) 768 (1.85%, +1.56%)
Dr Iain Maclennan (National Health Action Party) 392 (0.94%)
Ray Hall (Beer, Baccy and Crumpet Party) 235 (0.56%)
Kevin Milburn (Christian Party) 163 (0.39%)
Howling Laud Hope (Monster Raving Loony Party) 136 (0.33%)
Jim Duggan (Peace Party) 128 (0.31%)
David Bishop (Elvis Loves Pets) 72 (0.17%)
Michael Walters (English Democrats) 70 (0.17%, -0.30%)
Daz Procter (Trade Unionists and Socialists Against Cuts) 62 (0.15%)
Colin Bex (Wessex Regionalist) 30 (0.07%)
I’d expected to be wrong in my prediction that the Conservatives would win for the last week or so; I had underestimated the local popularity the Liberal Democrats possessed, Eastleigh being one of the few councils where they have managed to cling on to power since entering government. I also underestimated the importance of individual candidates. Still, you live and learn.
This is certainly good news for Nick Clegg, who I imagine will sleep easier with the relief of these results. This is the first piece of good news in a long list of blows for the Liberal Democrats. Whether this will become a turning point in their fortunes remains to be seen, although I highly doubt it. Eastleigh is something of a stronghold for the Liberal Democrats – their greatest threat was to be dislodged by the Conservatives, who performed around 7% behind the Lib Dems in 2010. Clearly, this never happened, but the Liberal Democrats’ share of the vote has significantly decreased, all the way from 46.5% to 32.06%. This drop of 14% is, in fact, slightly greater than their decline in national polls since 2010. So while a victory for Nick Clegg and the Liberal Democrats, they must not be complacent. They have shown that oblivion might not be on the cusp of their political horizon, but let there be no doubt that an incredible uphill struggle lies ahead if they seek any respectable result in 2015.
The real victors, in my opinion, have been UKIP, who won their greatest ever share of the vote in an election. This will undoubtedly provide evidence to Nigel Farage’s narrative that UKIP are a rising political force and, I have to admit, I’m wondering whether he is right. A large proportion of UKIP’s vote is due to the protest factor, with the Liberal Democrats no longer the traditional ‘protest party’. This phenomenon was seen in last year’s Bradford by-election, in which Respect’s George Galloway won with a significant majority. Nevertheless, UKIP has established itself as a party with wide support. If it maintains its current popularity in 2015 there is a good chance is will win its first MPs in the House of Commons, although it will suffer the same vote/seat ratio difference which has plagued the Liberal Democrats as a result of our First Past the Post voting system. Nigel Farage will be very happy just now.
The two losers of this election, it gives me some pleasure to type, are the UK’s largest political forces, Labour and the Conservatives. The Conservatives did respectfully, but David Cameron could really have used a victory to help his ailing popularity levels within his own party. He will also probably be despondent that his declaration to hold a European Union referendum if winning the 2015 General Election has done nothing to stem the growth of UKIP. Labour likewise should not be too discouraged, due to having a lack of a base to build on. I’ve read analyses stating that less popular parties often tend to be marginalised in by-elections, which I’d imagine to be the case here.
Most political commentators have stated that by-elections are not of great overall importance, which is true, but they’re still very exciting to examine and pore over.