Eastleigh: all the wrong lessons

John Rentoul

eastleigh 300x187 Eastleigh: all the wrong lessonsToo many Conservatives are sure to take the wrong lesson from third place in the Eastleigh by-election, which is that they should be more Eurosceptic, tougher on immigration and should never have legalised gay marriage.

The right lesson, of course, is that they should have supported the Alternative Vote in the 2011 referendum. It wouldn’t have helped in Eastleigh – UKIP might well have won it, with more Tory second preferences than the Lib Dems gained from Labour – but it would have made the general election easier, knowing that UKIP’s second preferences, if they go anywhere, would tend to the Tories.

For the Lib Dems, Nick Clegg is safe. Their share of the vote was down 14 points, the same as the Tories (in neat symmetry the UKIP share was up 28 points). But, as I said at the weekend, holding Eastleigh proves that their vote is resilient and that they will hold onto most of their seats at the general election.

For UKIP, the wrong lesson is to think that, if Nigel Farage had stood, he might have won. I’m not so sure. Too loud and colourful. Diane James was a better candidate, who looked like a sensible Tory. Actually, UKIP’s problem is that its 28 per cent of the vote might be its limit. If it can’t win in a place such as Eastleigh, there are few places in which it could win (17, actually, according to the Press Association). I don’t see much scope for UKIP to increase its share of the vote in a by-election, although next year’s European elections are a different matter.

As for Labour, what a miserable contrast with another Eastleigh by-election, in 1994, when the party came second with 28 per cent of the vote. But that was in the days when the party was genuine One Nation Labour, about to elect* a leader with instinctive appeal to the centre.

The real loser last night was David Cameron. He is trapped between further alienating his core vote and failing to win any ground in the centre. All that Grant Shapps, the Tory chairman, could offer was the same response as George Osborne to the failure of his economic plan: to “redouble our efforts”.

That is a better policy than a lurch to the right, but it means that a surprising and strong economic rebound starting this year is the Tories’ only hope.

*By-election on 9 June 1994, when it was already clear that Tony Blair was going to be Labour leader (Gordon Brown pulled out and endorsed him 1 June).

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  • reformist lickspittle

    To add to my other comment below, Labour made little real effort in this campaign – yes some activists visited the seat from elsewhere, but the amount of actual money spent was as little as they could decently get away with. The choice of JoF was a gamble which had modest dividends (no fault of his)

    A major reason was the fear that taking lots of votes from the LibDems would just hand victory to an unpleasant and amateurish Tory candidate – and thus a wholly undeserved lifeline to a floundering and out of his depth Cameron. It shouldn’t be forgotten, in contrast, that back in 1994 the Tories held the seat – a subtle but important difference in political dynamics.

  • creggancowboy

    Yes taking millions in child benefit with them!

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