The results of this contest have been long anticipated as
hugely important-‘pivotal’ said Martin Kettle in The Guardian eight days ago and
few disagreed. The actual result does indeed have significance for all four
mainstream parties (and that bracket now has
to include UKIP).
Labour was not expected to feature in a constituency which
ranks nearly 300th on its hit-list and, indeed, it did not exceed
this low expectation. At just under 10% of the vote it managed a whisker
more-0.22%- than the last time it contested this seat. Its jaunty candidate,
John O’Farrel, acquitted himself well and enhanced his reputation as a witty,
effective and committed Labour activist- if he wants a seat in 2015 I’m sure
he’d find a constituency to give him a chance. On the other hand Labour’s
‘one-nation’ message was not embraced by voters and the party’s lack of appeal
in the southeast continues to be one of its main worries.
The Liberal Democrats must be ecstatic at their victory. True,
their majority sunk by 14% but given the
disadvantages they have overcome, they can afford to regard the future with
some optimism. Their national poll ratings, from 24% of the poll May 2010, have
plumbed the depths in recent months of single figures; their leader, Nick Clegg
had been turned into something approaching a national figure of fun.
Chris Huhne’s reputation had been trashed by his admission
of having lied about his transfer to his former wife of licence speeding
points. Moreover, as a party of government Lib Dems were denied their
traditional ‘protest’ by-election vote; on the contrary, they had to accept the
same brickbats as their coalition partner for the gloomy economic stasis. On
top of all that the allegations surrounding Lord Rennard added an extra layer
of scandal to their party’s image.
But the through job the [arty has done in securing all
levels of local politics in Eastleigh, stood them in good stead, as did the bus
loads of activists who flooded in to reinforce the campaign of the competent councillor candidate, Mike
Thornton. Doubts about Lib Dem ability to attract votes as a separate party
have been substantially removed: they do have an identity which voters
recognise and can now view with respect. Around half Lib Dem seats are
threatened by Conservative second places; this result will have delivered huge
relief to the embattled junior coalition partner.
Ukip too must be cock-a-hoop- to come second in Eastleigh is an astonishing achievement and evidence that
Tories must seriously worry about the votes Farage will take on its right
flank. All that positioning regarding an in-out referendum seems to have been
in vain: voters still fear immigration is excessive and that the EU is poor
value for our annual contribution.
Grant Schapps, the Conservatives chairman, however, must be
sunk in gloom today as must Cameron and Osborne. Their chances of winning an
overall majority in 2015 look distant
indeed from the wreckage of their Eastleigh
effort. Nothing has gone right with the economy as far back as summer 2010 and
the first real test of popularity involving the coalition partners has resulted
in a heavy defeat in a seat the party just had to win. Intimations of defeat
were present at the very first press conference held by candidate Maria
Hutchings and things just got worse from there on.
To conclude, UKIP can contemplate the future with ever
increasing optimism; Liberal Democrats can celebrate their first political
success after so many disasters; Labour have to recognise they have much work
to do; but the Tories have to accept they have been been virtually forced back
to square one.