In by-elections as in any competition first is first and second is nowhere, this has never been more true of a by-election during this parliament than Eastleigh. While most by-elections this cycle have been safe Labour seats (even Corby was ‘really’ a Labour seat) this one was a rare election where all three big parties should have been in with a shout, as well as some of the smaller ones. In fact everyone who was seriously fighting this time should find themselves disappointed today.
The Lib Dems will be pleased to have kept the seat, yet with so many councillors in the area they must be worried that their vote share dropped so significantly. If Lib Dem popularity continues to wane they will have a very difficult job holding onto even their very safe seats in 2015.
The Tories blew a golden opportunity here. The Lib Dems are in disarray nationally, crashing down to single digits in opinion polls behind even UKIP. Added to that the by-election was called because the MP, a senior Lib Dem pleaded guilty to a serious criminal offence and the Tories should have been laughing all the way to a safe seat. A lot of their downfall has to be due to their candidate: Maria Hutchings seemed desperate to out-UKIP UKIP and so just pulled in all of the negatives that knee-jerk, social conservative politics brings without any of the benefits that UKIP have of being an anti-establishment, anti-politics vote.
Tories scared of UKIP need to realise that they aren’t surging due to their policies (besides EU withdrawal which is woefully low on voters list of important policies and anti-immigration rhetoric UKIP isn’t well known for any policy, besides perhaps opposing gay marriage, which the vast majority of the country supports. This is probably just as well as their un-costed manifesto in 2010 was unhelpfully vague, promising enormous spending cuts but outlining just as large spending increases). UKIP benefits from anti politics feeling, able to present themselves as a fresh choice with none of the careerism or expenses-scrounging baggage that the other parties have; something the Tories can never capitalise on, especially when they are in Government.
Labour have just as much reason to feel let down here. If they are to truly be the ‘one nation’ party they claim to be then they need to make serious inroads into the South. Eastleigh was a perfect opportunity for Labour, the Tory candidate was a walking disaster zone who CCHQ actually kept away from the media to heighten her chances. The Liberal Democrats have never been more hated or distrusted and yet Labour crashed home in fourth place, putting up a disaster of a candidate themselves and actually losing votes from 2010. Many Labour spinners will be pooh-poohing the idea that Eastleigh was a loss for them, but it speaks volumes that Labour’s lack of policy has seen them come in far behind the two hated parties of a Coalition Government making cuts never before seen in UK politics, as well as a further party that wants to make cuts 5 or 6 times the size. If Labour cannot capitalise here, where both Coalition partners were weak then they are in serious trouble when they take on other marginal seats. Labours inability to claw back ground in this gem of a southern seat rubbishes the idea that they will ever be able to win seriously in the South under Miliband’s disastrous leadership. What sort of ‘One Nation’ is that?
Finally, UKIP. By all criteria UKIP should be able to judge this election as a success: they have skyrocketed from their 2010 vote share; their candidate Diane James leapfrogged the Labour and Tory party, thus, hopefully building a base for further elections in the constituency and surrounding area. They should be able to celebrate such a result, but they can’t. UKIP have yet to learn to not over-hype their electoral chances. If they had played this vote down as simply a hope to nip at the Tories heels to set themselves up for 2015, they could celebrate an enormous over-achievement in style. Instead both activists and senior party members, including leader Nigel Farage and deputy leader Paul Nuttall predicted UKIP’s victory in the constituency. Indeed, kippers were crying victory after polling had closed yesterday as the vast majority of tweets and online commentary predicting a strong UKIP win. The fact they have missed that goal will leave a bitter taste in the mouths of supporters and activists.
This is not the first time that UKIP have played up their chances in by elections. The party talked the talk in constituencies like Rotherham, Croydon and Middlesbrough, yet always fell short of the predicted win. The party itself dropped the ball by playing up Farage’s considerations to stand before he ultimately decided not to, due to the heavy ties he has to the constituency. That itself indicated the UKIP leader didn’t think his party had a chance of winning and may prove to be an enormous tactical blunder.
UKIP celebrates its 20th birthday this year and despite a meteoric rise in the last 24 months the party needs to cement its gains with actual electoral victories before they become the Ron Paul of UK politics – able to make a good showing and enthuse a lot of people but never strong enough to get over the finish line.
UKIP still have a very poor showing in elections outside of ones for the European Parliament. They have less councillors than the Green party who barely scratch 2% in opinion polls and similar numbers to the almost unheard of Liberal party. UKIPs main contributions to Westminster politics come in parliamentary by-elections, but their tactics of spending hard have proved fruitless. In Barnsley – UKIPs first significant by-election of this parliament, the party spent £10.35 for every vote they got meaning 50% more than the Tories who got 1000 votes less at £7.03 per vote and way less than Labour who spent £4.51 and won the election. This heavy spending for meagre results can only be repeated in a few constituencies at best in the General Election, leaving UKIP to ponder whether it wants to become a national party that can’t quite win or a hyper localised party like the Greens that can take only a few areas.
Perhaps if UKIP hadn’t played up its chances so heavily, the Tories hadn’t selected a disastrous candidate, Labour had some policies and direction and the Lib Dems, well, didn’t have a crook as a former MP and didn’t see their vote share crash so heavily, they all may have had something to cheer today. As it is all three need to do some serious soul searching. While many will be tempted to brush off the losses or claim some victories from the result, doing so only means that lessons haven’t been learnt and the same ruinous mistakes will be made again and again. Although the sand might be an inviting place for these parties to stick their heads in, it would be self- defeating and frankly idiotic for any of them so to do.
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