Liberal Democrats win Eastleigh By-election

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.

The Rise of UKIP

UKIP has been reaching unprecedented levels of popularity recently.  I mentioned this on my piece about opinion polling, but there’s since been further developments in three by-elections held across the country yesterday.  All were considered safe Labour seats before the election, and indeed, Labour held onto all three of them.  Nevertheless, the results make interesting reading:

Rotherham

Sarah Champion (Labour)                – 9,866 (46.25%, +1.62%)

Jane Collins (UKIP)                             – 4,648 (21.79%, +15.87%)

Marlene Guest (BNP)                             – 1,804 (8.46%, -1.96%)

Yvonne Ridley (Respect)                         – 1,778 (8.34%)

Simon Wilson (Conservative)                 – 1,157 (5.42%, -11.32%)

David Wildgoose (English Democrat)          – 703 (3.30%)

Simon Copley (Independent)               – 582 (2.73%, -3.58%)

Michael Beckett (Liberal Democrat)          – 451 (2.11%, -13.87%)

Turnout: 21,330 (33.63%, -25.37%)

 

Middlesbrough

Andy McDonald (Labour)                – 10,201 (60.48%, +14.60%)

Richard Elvin (UKIP)                     – 1,990 (11.80%, +8.10%)

George Selmer (Liberal Democrat)          – 1,672 (9.91%, -10.00%)

Ben Houchen (Conservative)                 – 1,063 (6.30%, -12.48%)

Turnout: 16,866 (25.91%, -25.44%)

 

Croydon North

Steve Reed (Labour)                          – 15,898 (64.71%, +8.69%)

Andy Stranack (Conservative)                 – 4,137 (16.84%, -7.28%)

Winston McKenzie (UKIP)                   – 1,400 (5.70%, +3.97%)

Marisha Ray (Liberal Democrat)          – 860 (3.50%, -10.48%)

Shasha Islam Khan (Green) 855          – (3.48%, +1.51%)

Turnout: 24,568 (26.4%, -34.25%)

 

 

The most obvious comment to be made about these results is the fantastic gains Labour has made, which is in line with their increases in opinion polls, and of course, the abysmal performances of the Conservatives and the Liberal Democrats.  The Conservatives managed to perform modestly in Croydon North and terribly in the others; The Liberal Democrats were wiped out across the board.  Coming 8th in Rotherham… I may have underestimated just how unpopular the party is right now.  Supposedly no major party has ever survived such a poor by-election result.  Time will tell.

But back on topic, I think UKIP will be very happy with this result.  Coming second twice and then third is an incredible result for the party, and could indicate an approaching breakthrough into the House of Commons one day.  However, it could also be attributed to a phenomena known as ‘protest votes’, where the electorate do not want to vote for the current government, but are also wary of the opposition who are still fresh in their minds after previously being in government, so third parties tend to perform disproportionately well.  The Liberal Democrats have historically taken these votes, but now they are in government voters have sought out other parties.  This may explain Respect’s victory earlier this year in a by-election.

These ‘protest parties’ tend to do modestly well in national elections but rarely repeat their peaks during by-elections.  While UKIP have done extraordinarily well in some of these by-elections, in several they’ve not even kept hold of their deposit.  In short, it’s difficult to say whether these results mean UKIP is heading towards their first seats in parliament; they are certainly good news for the party, but don’t indicate that UKIP has broken into national politics quite yet.

Current Opinion Polling

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The UK has seen a shift in opinion polling since the general election in 2010.  For those who have forgotten (how could you?!), the results were:

Conservative Party        – 306 seats (36.1% of vote)

Labour Party           – 258 seats (29% of vote)

Liberal Democrat Party – 57 seats (23% of vote)

Others                           – 29 seats (11.9% of vote)

As we all know, no party had enough seats for a majority so a Convervative-Liberal Democrat coalition was formed.  Since the election, however, the polls (I shall use Yougov for the figures in this post) have shown differing levels of support for the parties.

Firstly there was a massive drop in support for the Liberal Democrats, down to as low as 8% at times – the lowest a Liberal party has recorded since 1980.  This isn’t surprising, as many of the party’s supporters will see the decision to enter a coalition as a betrayal, particularly after the broken pledge to not introduce tuition fees and the failure of the “Yes to AV electoral system” campaign in the 2011 referendum.  This decline has correlated with a rise in support for Labour, suggesting that many former Liberal Democrat supporters have now turned to the party.  These polls certainly reflect in results of recent elections; the Liberal Democrats have lost hundreds of council seats in elections in 2011 and 2012, and were wiped out in the Scottish Parliament election 2011 with their worst ever result, losing 12 seats.

Secondly there has been the rise of the United Kingdom Independence Party (UKIP), which despite never having won a seat in the House of Commons is currently polling at around 8%.  This has been at the expense of the Conservative Party, which has also seen a drop in the polls since the election – although not as significant as that of the Liberal Democrats.  This suggests that Conservative voters are more supportive of the government than Liberal Democrat voters.  This change can be attributed to the growing debate over our membership within the European Union, with Prime Minister David Cameron seeming weak over the issue by certain sections of the Conservative Party.

So, according to the polls, if there were to be an election today the results would look something like the following:

Labour Party           – 374 seats* (42% of vote)

Conservative Party        – 231 seats (33% of vote)

Liberal Democrat Party – 20 seats (9% of vote)

Others (including UKIP) – 25 seats (16% of vote)

UKIP                               – ?** seats   (8% of vote)

* Seats calculated using this basic tool.

**No swing calculator has yet included UKIP into the calculations, so we can only guess how they would perform in an election.

These results would give Labour a clear majority in the House of Commons.  Be that as it may, there is reason to believe this is not how the 2015 election will pan out.  The polls are very likely to change between now and then, particularly in the run-up to the election during the midst of campaign season, and significant events may occur to cause a shift in opinion.

There is also the possibility that people polled in these surveys will vote differently during the actual election.  A long-term Conservative supporter may see UKIP attractive now, but when actually voting they may consider their traditional choice a better option in terms of running the country.  UKIP will certainly see an increase in votes if these polling results continue and I would expect them to win their first seats, but I do not believe they will achieve as much as 8% in the election.  The same goes for the Liberal Democrats; the party will be extremely lucky to keep all of its seats, but it is unlikely that in another three years’ time they will be wiped out quite as much as the polls suggest.

Although an indicator of how current opinion is flowing, the polls at this stage ultimately do not shine much of a light into how the parties will perform in the 2015 general election.