Monday, February 11, 2013


Humdinger of a Contest Hotting up in Eastleigh

Take a good look at this picture- it's of Maria Hutchings, the Tory candidate for Chris Huhne's old seat in the by-election to be held 28th of this month. One reason for looking carefully is that it doesn't look much like the Ms Hutchings we see on the telly as it's clearly a picture when the candidate was some years younger. The second reason is that she could prove the weak link in Cameron's assault on this Lib Dem seat. She is almost UKIP on the EU and therefore not a fan of her party leader. She also is out of step on abortion and is against gay marriage. Very definitely then, she is not one to express the modernizing zeitgeist. I just wonder if her candidacy will deny Cameron a contest he desperately want to win.

This contest has all the ingredients of a classic. It's the first head to head of the coalition partners and as such anticipates many of the key 2015 contests where the Tories hope to win a couple of dozen at least seats off the Lib Dems.Andrew Rawnsley reckons Labour might spring a surprise, according to Andrew Rawnsley.

"At the general elections of 1955 and 1966, Labour came within fewer than 1,000 votes of winning Eastleigh. Admittedly, the shape of the seat and its demographics have changed considerably since then, but more recent elections also suggest that Labour should not entirely write off its chances. The last time there was a byelection in the seat, in 1994, Labour came second, ahead of the Tories, with more than 27% of the vote. At the 1997 general election, Labour achieved a similar score."

Eastleigh moreover, is prime 'squeezed middle territory and Miliband should be able to improve on his party's record. That is, if he doesn't think his supporters should vote tactically for the Lib Dem candidate. But, given the coalition this line of argument makes much less sense than before the partnership was forged. Is it impossible to imagine a Labour victory?

 "Ukip nibbles away at the Tory vote from the right flank. Labour gains some switchers from the Conservatives and more from the Lib Dems. It is then just about possible to envisage Labour winning the seat. I have heard Labour frontbenchers talk about "the Brighton scenario". Caroline Lucas won the Brighton Pavilion seat for the Greens with just over 31% of the vote because of the way in which the rest of the electorate split between the other parties.
The first poll out, produced my Michael Ashcroft, gave Conservatives a 3% lead but the one reporteed in The Guardian today gave the Lib Dems a slight lead: 36% to Tories' 33% with UKIP on 16% and Labour on 13%. The Brighton scenario' might come about but it seems a long shot, even for volatile by-election contests.
Gaby Hinscliff in The Guardian today offers a number of new angles on the contest. She quotes my colleague Phil Cowley, Professor at Nottingham University who points out the Lib Dems have never lost a by-election.

What strikes me about this by-election is that Labour are, unusually, in the potential recipient of protest votes against the coalition. They can rouse the low earning voters of Eastleigh to cast a vote against the government which has so signally failed to sustain, let alone improve, their quality of life.They have to fight the contest hard- it will be interesting to see who their candidate is- and things might just go their way. Lib Dems lead slightly in the polls, have the constituency sewn up in terms of elected local government on the ground and have assiduously nourished their support for many years. Phil Cowley's observation is interesting and suggests Tory hopes will be disappointed.  


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