Friday, 1 March 2013

Eastleigh: everybody loses

Lots of feverish speculation around about what the Eastleigh by-election 'means' for 2015. So here's some more.


That's what this by-election result means for all the parties. Let's look at them one-by-one.

The Liberal Democrats.
It was their seat. The previous MP is probably going to prison for a serious criminal offence, and the campaign was conducted in the midst of a media frenzy about an obscure apparatchik's (alleged) disgusting treatment of women. Now they're going round saying that if they can win under those circumstances, they'll be fine in the 2015 election. I reckon this is nonsense. It was a straight fight between Lib Dems and the Tories: two hated government parties. Angry Tories have an easy protest vote in UKIP. The kind of Lib Dems in constituencies like Eastleigh wouldn't vote Labour as a protest because it would let the Tories in. I don't think this means that they'll be OK in constituencies up and down the country in 2015 - just that they may do better in straight Tory v Lib Dem marginals. Eastleigh was a safe Lib Dem seat which is now a marginal one: on this kind of 14% drop, all their marginals will vanish.

The Tories.
They ran a dreadful campaign, in which their candidate was a UKIP clone, kept away from public scrutiny after making offensive and outlandish statements. They may have learned that shifting to UKIP territory on Europe only helps UKIP, but I doubt it. They've learned that the Lib Dems are still preferably in many voters' eyes to the Conservatives, but that's probably about it. But this was a by-election: control of the government wasn't in doubt, and I think they can probably assume that many UKIP votes were cast safe in that knowledge. When it comes to electing a government, lots of UKIP supporters will vote Tory to keep out the Lib Dems and Labour. The core vote strategy won't get the Tories a majority, but I don't think the UKIP sky is falling on their heads. They thought it was, hence the campaign they ran – and look at the result.

It's a long time since Eastleigh was Labour territory. Lots of Blairites and Tories will be attacking the current leadership for managing nothing more than a 0.2% increase in the vote. I'm more sanguine. A very short campaign doesn't give a new-look party time to persuade any electorate of anything. Labour just doesn't have a natural constituency in Eastleigh yet, and expectations of a surge of enthusiasm were ludicrous. The protest voters were rightwingers who were never going to put their crosses in the Labour box. I also think that the despite all the evils the Liberal Democrats have perpetuated through joining the coalition, voters would still rather see and Lib Dem winning than a Tory. Therefore I think some Labour supporters will have swallowed a mouthful of vomit and voted tactically for the Lib Dems.

I have no doubt that if a Labour MP went under a bus in the Northern heartlands, Lib Dem and Tory candidates polling 9% or whatever would be shrugging their shoulders and accepting it rather than beating themselves up for not pulling off a miracle.

No doubt they're on the rise, but I'm not convinced this is a breakthrough. For all the reasons delineated above, I think this is a protest vote which won't be replicated or bettered in general elections when the government of the country is at stake. The Tories will tack towards UKIP because the tiny rump Tory membership is overwhelmingly barking mad, and UKIP will continue to operate as an amusing, sometimes dangerous, ginger group. This was an election about disgust with the mainstream political parties and Farage capitalised on it, but it's a high water mark. I think UKIP will suck away some Tories and allow Lib Dem and Labour candidates to win marginals: the Tories will adopt a core vote strategy to counter that and we'll get used to coalition governments (because the Tory core vote isn't enough to win outright) and some UKIP voters will return to the Tories to keep Labour out.

Additionally, Farage's crew should expect more scrutiny in future. I was amused to see him blithely assert the general criminal tendencies of Romanians and Bulgarians yesterday: yet the UK locks up more people than Romania and Bulgaria, which suggests British people have a greater natural propensity to commit crime.

Even more interestingly, if UKIP was an independent country, it would far outstrip every other country on earth for its rate of imprisonment. Currently, the United States has a higher rate of incarceration than any other country on earth: 716 per 100,000. So 0.716% of Americans commit crimes so heinous that they go to prison. But what of UKIP? 10% of UKIP's MEPs went from Parliament to Prison (including Tom Wise the thief and Ashley Mote – ironically – the benefit fraudster: Nikki Sinclaire has been arrested for fraud so the stats might actually be heading upwards). If I were Romania and Bulgaria, I'd be banning UKIP members from entering the country for fear of a crime wave.

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