Friday, 1 March 2013

Lessons from the Eastleigh by-election

It was a by-election not like any other in recent history.  When the result came, it provided not the kind of joy for Liberal Democrats as another result here in 1994 famously did, but rather immense relief.

Here was evidence that we can win by-elections in government – or at least hold our seat against the disjointed and admittedly nasty campaigning of a Conservative party in conflict with itself.  It may have been a far cry from the early 1990s when the Liberal Democrat campaigning machine appeared unstoppable, securing famous wins in Eastbourne, Ribble Valley, and Newbury.  But there were parallels – and not merely in the figure of Chris Rennard who had a huge bearing on the outcomes, both then and now, if for entirely different reasons.

If nothing else, it should be remarkably clear that effective local campaigning has a significant effect in these kinds of situations.  Faced with choosing a candidate, the local party must have had a range of talent to choose from and – unsurprisingly – played safe, opting for Mike Thornton.  No doubt there were potential candidates with more flair and greater experience, but Thornton was local and a councillor – a combination that usually works for Liberal Democrats.  What he could do effectively was point to an impressive record in local government, something that evidently made a contribution to the outcome.

In terms of how we campaign, it’s obvious that the methods that proved so effective in the 1980s and early 1990s continue to work.  Clearly there are limitations, with the ability of UKIP to poll well meaning we must think a little more carefully about how we sell our horse races, and it would be both complacent and mistaken to view the Eastleigh success as proof of a slick, thoroughly professional campaigning strategy.  The party’s communications and campaigning methods at the very least need re-examining and there is a need to develop new approaches in reaching out to voters.  However, in areas like Eastleigh – where we have a strong local base, where we have held the parliamentary seat for 19 years, where we are fortunate in our Conservative opponent and, crucially, where we are seen as the principal or at least most viable option to a Tory MP – the traditional methods of throwing everything we have into the by-election, an emphasis on localism, intensive telephone canvassing and publicly identifying ourselves as being the only alternative to the Conservatives seem to work.

I will take nothing away from the gargantuan effort that secured a much needed by-election success, nor from our party's considerable resilience.  I will, however, mention that we won in spite of a significant loss of support: our vote was down considerably on 2010 – falling from 46.5% to 32% - which tells its own story.  These are not good times for the Liberal Democrats and this was actually reflected in the Eastleigh poll.  This being so, that we are able to hold Eastleigh in the face of these current difficulties, with accusations of sexual harassment on the part of Lord Rennard dominating headlines, suggests that talk of crisis is premature.

It was a close thing and if as few as 1500 Lib Dem voters had decided to support the Conservatives instead not only would Eastleigh have returned an MP who makes Peter Bone look like Mahatma Gandhi by comparison, there would have been real pressure on Nick Clegg’s leadership.  It could be argued that there is in any case: his handling of the Rennard situation has been shambolic and confused at best.  However, this result gives him some breathing space – not to mention reason to look forward positively.  This was a by-election that the party, and Clegg personally, had to win.  Lose, and talk in the press would be of pending electoral meltdown, apportioning blame for the defeat and asking serious questions about our role in coalition.  Furthermore, it would have sent out signals to the public that we are finished electorally.  Clegg knows this, and will be rightly relieved at the pressure and criticism instead being directed towards the Prime Minister.

For the Conservatives, defeat doesn’t spell the catastrophe it would have done for the Liberal Democrats.  But coming third, behind UKIP, in a target seat after the disgraced incumbent MP was forced to step down is a poor result in anyone’s book.  It is true that it was a hard fight and that they came close, but I suspect neither Nigel Farage nor Conservative right-wingers will fail to remind Cameron of the ignominy of third place.  This was an undeniable humiliation at a time when the Prime Minister urgently needed a morale-boosting electoral success.  For the Tories, the by-election also demonstrated the folly in selecting Maria Hutchings as a candidate: her absence from hustings (clearly she was above such public scrutiny) and rather unwise comments on state education reinforced the Tories’ credentials as the party of elite privilege.  It shouldn’t have been too hard to have selected a moderate, sensible, politically astute candidate with broad appeal and their inability to do so is suggestive of an identity struggle within the Conservative Party.  Perhaps more significant than the propensity to select unelectable right-wingers as candidates is the Tories’ inability to use Cameron’s promise of an EU referendum to electoral advantage.  This was a strategy aimed at outflanking and even disarming UKIP but, if the evidence at Eastleigh is to be believed, has failed spectacularly.  Far from hurting UKIP, it seems to be damaging his own party. Tougher lines on immigration and human rights similarly don’t seem to be making his party any more electable in constituencies they held until reasonably recently.

The lesson for the Conservatives is that posturing as a kind of soft version of UKIP will not help them, and only serve to help Nigel Farage’s party.  For the party to succeed, public notions of what the essential values of Conservatism are much be confronted, challenged and radically changed.  A reinforcement of Conservatism as the epitome of romantic English nationalism with its Euroskepticism, suspicion of human rights law and plain dislike of equality will yield little benefit for Cameron and his party.

Undoubtedly this result will have some effect on coalition dynamics and should provide Clegg with useful opportunities to press his case in cabinet.  Whether he has the courage to take them, or indeed fully realises how to press home his advantage, remains to be seen.

While it was, all in all, a good night for us and a poor one for the Tories, it was a very good night for UKIP.  They didn’t win the seat but came incredibly close, pushing the Conservatives into third place. UKIP have proved that Tory attempts to marginalise them have fallen flat and that they certainly cannot be ignored.  Moreover, they have demonstrated that – contrary to popular opinion – they don’t simply take votes from the Conservative Party.  They can also take them from the Liberal Democrats.

It would be churlish not to admit that UKIP's performance was impressive.  They were positive, outgoing, selected a strong candidate and focused their energies on demonstrating that not only did they have ideas but had a real chance of winning the seat.  Not altogether dissimilar to the Liberal Democrats in bygone years.

All week, while Nick Clegg was insisting this was a two-horse race, Nigel Farage was saying there were very definitely three horses in this race and that UKIP would finish ahead of the Conservatives.  This may have seemed like a familiar attempt to persuade Conservative voters to back his candidate as the best way to defeat the Lib Dem, but in the final analysis Farage was correct and Clegg wrong.  He was also right when he suggested that he expected support for his party to come from former Tory and Lib Dem voters equally.  A comparison with the 2010 result suggest this is highly probable and creates some difficulties for those of us who complacently believe the net product of UKIP activity will be to split to Tory vote.  People vote UKIP for a variety of reasons – not all of them directly related to policy. Essentially, UKIP have become the new Lib Dems, capitalising (as we did for several years) on an anti-establishment theme and taking advantage of their identity as a “none of the above” option, claiming (disingenuously) to be above the low moral standards and political tribalism of mainstream party politics.

In this election, UKIP may have made the difference and aided the Liberal Democrats but, given that the Lib Dems and Tories both lost about 11,000 voters each in three years, this cannot be simply assumed.  UKIP have a broader appeal than many have given them credit for, and will prove a threat not only to the Tories but also our own party.

Labour, not entirely unsurprisingly in a seat they had zero prospects of winning, had a quiet night but will be concerned that their share of the vote barely increased and will also have one eye on UKIP.  Their talk of One Nationism seems to have fallen on deaf ears and dissatisfaction with the government appeared to benefit them little.  Privately Ed Miliband will be concerned at Labour’s performance but will be happy to see David Cameron under all kinds of pressure.

Other notable performances were from Independent Danny Stupple who earned a creditable fifth place, no doubt by ensuring that his 768 friends turned out to vote. I was surprised to see Iain Maclennan from the National Health Action Party taking only 394 votes – an indication perhaps that, however much the public identify with an issue, there is little appetite for single issue parties.  Finally it’s worth pointing out that the Monster Raving Loony Party and the Elvis Loves Pets Party finished ahead of the English Democrats, which points to another effect of UKIP’s increasing popularity – the demise of the right wing “patriotic” vote.

Eastleigh was a by-election victory for the Liberal Democrats and it is one that we should rightly enjoy, congratulate ourselves for and learn the lessons from.  Fortunately the shadows cast by Huhne and Rennard, while ultimately having some effect, far from derailed our campaign.  From reports I’ve heard from activists in Eastleigh, it seems that (for Lib Dems at least) the by-election was a return to the old days: a positive campaign, a determination to win against the odds, an opportunity to sell ourselves on the national level by our performances locally and, by no means least, campaigners coming together from across the UK to work together.  If Eastleigh can give Liberal Democrats reason to feel good about themselves, then that is surely no bad thing.

However, there are wider lessons we must learn from the by-election .  Victory cannot be allowed to disguise the fact that our share of the vote fell dramatically, that UKIP pose is very real dangers and that, away from the relatively friendly environs of Eastleigh, the challenge of reconnecting with voters is both immense and urgent.  Now the by-election is over, we as activists must turn our attentions to that challenge with renewed vigour.

Finally, I would like to wish our new MP Mike Thornton every success in his new role.  I trust he will bring something positive and fresh to the parliamentary party and that he will serve his constituents well beyond 2015.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Another lesson may be that being boring is now a prerequisite to being selected as a LibDem candidate. You say that the party played safe but that is a very mild criticism. You should have lambasted the complete lack of ambition.