Eastleigh by-election: Snapshot of political failure

The fruitcakes and loons of UKIP came second, Eddie Ford reflects on the Eastleigh by-election

Tory fortunes look very rocky at the moment. First the UK’s ‘gold-plated’ credit rating was downgraded, which exposed George Osborne as an emperor with no clothes or coherent economic strategy. Now David Cameron has suffered the humiliation of seeing the Tory candidate in the February 28 Eastleigh by-election beaten into third place by the United Kingdom Independence Party, an organisation he once dismissed - and maybe still does privately - as “fruitcakes, loonies and closet racists mostly”.

When Nigel Farage, Ukip’s leader - if not dictator - stood in the 1994 Eastleigh by-election, he polled just 952 votes (1.7%). But this time his candidate, Diana James, secured 27.8% of the vote (11,571 votes) - barely 4% behind the official winner of the contest, Mike Thornton of the Liberal Democrats (13,342 votes). As for the Tories’ Maria Hutchings, she trailed on 10,559 votes (25.37%). Labour’s John O’Farrell came a fairly miserable fourth on 4,088 votes (9.82%).

In other words, by any objective measurement, Ukip came a very good second and the Tories came a very bad third - with Labour coming to a shuddering halt. Yes, we all know that by-elections are no automatic guidance to general election prospects and that there are very particular - perhaps unusual - circumstances surrounding Eastleigh: like the fact that is a ‘one-party state’ where all the councillors are Lib Dems. But it would be foolish and philistine to dismiss the electoral verdict on that day as a purely one-off phenomenon.

The Trade Unionist and Socialist Coalition, by the way, received a whopping 62 votes (0.15%) - beaten into 13th place, including by candidates from the Beer, Baccy and Crumpet Party, Christian Party, Monster Raving Loony Party, Peace Party and Elvis Loves Pets Party. Not so long ago, as regularly Weekly Worker readers will recall, the Tusc leadership absurdly argued that only organisations which had “social weight” should be allowed to field candidates under its electoral umbrella (which apparently excluded the CPGB, but not, for example, the Socialist Party in England and Wales).

Lib Dem leader Nick Clegg described Mike Thornton’s performance in Eastleigh as a “stunning” victory - the Lib Dems holding onto the seat vacated by a disgraced Chris Huhne. Yet in some respects you could argue that Eastleigh was a disaster avoided, not a triumph - stunning or otherwise. In reality the Lib Dem vote fell by a substantial 14.48% (to 32% of the total vote).

Indeed, the strong suspicion is that Ukip would have won the election if campaigning had carried on for a few more weeks - it obviously had the wind in its sails, not something you can say about the Lib Dems or the other mainstream parties. There are not many seats where the Lib Dems could survive such a drop and still come out on top. Actually, Cleggian hyperbole aside, the 14-point drop in their Eastleigh vote share since 2010 is entirely consistent with numerous opinion polls, which suggest a nationwide collapse from 24% to something around 10% or so.

Having said that, it is the case that the Tory press mounted a concerted and not so subtle effort to halt the Lib Dems in Eastleigh. Hence the running of near endless scandalous stories about Huhne and especially Lord Rennard, whose unseemly behaviour they had known about for a long time, of course - but now was the perfectly opportune time to get the presses rolling.

The Lib Dem victory was ultimately down to the fact that they had experienced cadre on the ground - thus contradicting the left cliché that bourgeois parties have no contact or relationship with the local communities outside of elections and just cynically parachute in ‘outsiders’ or high-profile candidates. Whilst this is certainly true of an outfit like Tusc, an on-off electoral alliance that treats the electorate with contempt, that is most distinctly not the case with the Lib Dems - at least in constituencies like leafy Eastleigh. Councillor Thornton’s unashamedly localist focus on traffic lights, the local bypass, etc struck a resonance with sections of the electorate - prevailing over the shrill, Tory-centric, sometimes semi-hysterical national press.

The Tories’ share of the vote fell by a similar amount to the Lib Dems (13.96%). However, the sober reality is that the Conservative Party needs to win seats such as Eastleigh if it is to have any chance of forming a government on its own in 2015 - the last time the Tories won an outright majority, they held Eastleigh with a majority of 18,000 votes.

However, as things stand now - despite the economy on the brink of a possible triple-dip recession and absolutely no recovery on the horizon - the Tories are in with a real chance of forming a majority government at the next election. Moreover, they are well placed to do a deal, either with the Lib Dems or with Ukip (but not with both). ‘One nation’ Labour certainly has nothing to smile about, as previously noted - though if you are a supreme optimist then maybe you could find a sliver of consolation in the fact that Labour was the only mainstream party to actually increase its share of the vote on February 28, albeit by a less than awesome fifth of 1%. Eastleigh, when all is said and done, represents a failure of Miliband’s rebranding, especially as it was designed to appeal to southern voters.

Depressing news for Labour then. Under normal circumstances, so to speak, they would expect to occupy - and benefit electorally from - the acres of vacant space to the left of an increasingly unpopular rightwing government committed to a vicious regime of cuts, even in many ‘typical’ southern seats. It should be able to do better than a pretty pitiful 10%, putting it bluntly.

Nonetheless, the rumbles of discontent from the Tory backbenches are getting deeper and more repeated. Before Eastleigh, the prominent rightwinger, David Davis - who, of course, stood against Cameron for the Tory leadership - gravely informed The Guardian that the prime minister would be in “crisis” if Ukip managed to claim second place (February 22). In fact, he went on, even a Tory “close second” with Ukip on “our tail” would also be “uncomfortable”. Well, what Davis feared has come true - now comes the bitter inquest and recriminations.

Inevitably, there have been Pavlovian cries for larger tax reductions and greater spending cuts. Right on cue, the Free Enterprise group of Tory MPs have urged George Osborne to “wake up” to the “harm” caused by high taxes. Stifling tomorrow’s entrepreneurs and ‘wealth creators’. There is widespread talk from the right of challenging Cameron’s leadership if the March budget speech turns out to be disappointing from their perspective - an almost certainty - and if they also do badly in the May local elections.

So many voices are being raised saying the Tories urgently need to move to the right in order to reclaim the ground allegedly stolen from them by Ukip - start banging on about tighter immigration laws, repatriating powers from the Brussels bureaucrats, and so on. Cameron’s recent call for a simple in-out referendum on European Union membership, though hailed by many at the time as a brilliant political manoeuvre, does not seem to have warded off the dangerous Ukip beast - at least not yet.

Expressing this anxiety, Michael Fabricant - the Tory vice-chairman who last year called for an electoral pact with Ukip - issued a series of tweets about how the Tories’ voice is “muffled and “not crisp”: it does not “clearly project” Conservative Party “core policies or principles”. For Fabricant, Ukip “clearly connected with Conservative policies” at Eastleigh. Or, as Nigel Farage put it more straightforwardly, the “real problem” the Conservatives have got is not with Ukip, but rather that their own supporters “look at a Conservative Party that used to talk about wealth creation, low tax and enterprise and it now talks about gay marriage and wind farms” and other such highly undesirable issues. Instead, back to reactionary basics.

Unhappily for the Tories though, this sort of prognosis is at best crudely simplistic and at worst plain delusional. If only life was so simple. Take a quick look at the Tories’ Eastleigh candidate, Maria Hutchings. She came across as more Ukip than Ukip’s own Diane James. Yet it counted for nothing in the end.

Such ideological crossover fatally undermines reductive political calculations predicated on a left-right see-saw. Moving to the right (or the left, for that matter), as Cameron has pointed out, will not automatically reap any benefits in the ballot box. Think again. Who exactly would be moving closer to whom and who will be trying to steal votes from whom?

Even more basically still, as Farage noted quite correctly, such an idea is based on “false arithmetic” - posited on the premise that Ukip is only picking up disaffected Tory voters. Obviously not the case. According to Farage’s calculations, which sound plausible, merely a third of the Ukip vote came from unhappy Tories. Cameron, on the other hand, has concluded - far from illogically - that he is doing the right thing by sticking to the ‘sensible’ centre-right ground. Keep on hugging those hoodies and loving gays.

Ukip’s emerging ‘anti-politics’ politics are more akin to Beppe Grillo’s Five Star Movement in Italy - and all the more potentially dangerous for that, given his virulently reactionary, anti-trade union/immigrant views. This, of course, utterly confounds the Socialist Workers Party’s contention that the FSM is somehow leftwing. If that is so, then so is Ukip - perhaps Socialist Worker should urge the working class to ‘critically’ vote for Nigel Farage in 2015.