Despite a woeful strategy and questionable candidate, Labour will be the ultimate winners in the battle for Eastleigh.
Labour arrived comparatively late to the game in the Eastleigh by-election, the Hampshire seat made vacant by the resignation of disgraced Lib Dem Chris Huhne.
Their candidate John O’Farrell will be recognisable to many through his appearances on Have I Got News For You. And he’s wasted no time in making his name known on the hustings, proclaiming as he that he was disappointed Thatcher had not been killed during the terrorist attack in Brighton in 1984. As if that wasn’t enough to fire up the Tory and UKIP bases, he also professed that he would have preferred to see Argentina victorious in the 1982 conflict with Britain.
By selecting a high profile candidate and committing substantial resources to the fight, Milliband has made three significant strategic errors.
Firstly and most simply, a high profile campaign draws attention to Labour policies. Labour is not ready for this sort of scrutiny. Despite two and half years of waffle, Labour have yet to set out a clear vision or set of salient policies that they can put to the public. The previous by-elections were won in safe Labour areas, (Corby should always have been Labour, sorry Louise), so they could get away with running campaigns based simply on bashing the government. Eastleigh is not Labour territory, and it demands a positive message, which Labour just doesn’t have. Even the Labour front bench can’t extrapolate polices out of ‘One Nationism’ so you’ve got to pity the local activists getting quizzed on the doorsteps.
Secondly, a concerted effort by Labour will only ever draw votes from Lib Dems. The Lib Dem majority was always going to be trimmed, but by wheeling out the big guns Labour could do serious damage to the Lib Dems, maybe just enough to hand the seat to the Tories. The maths are straight forward enough; Labour will deprive the Lib Dems of more votes than UKIP can siphon off of the Tories.
The third eminently foreseeable consequence of running a high profile campaign was that it gives both the other parties something to shoot at other than each other. Cameron and Clegg both desperately need a win, but both are committed to seeing the Coalition through to 2015. Eastleigh was going to be awkward. So imagine their glee at seeing step into the middle of what was about to be a spiteful bar fight. The Coalition partners can both swing punches at Labour over the debt, the deficit and immigration, while avoiding, to a degree, inflicting too much damage on each other.
But for all the Labour party’s efforts to scupper themselves, they will still emerge triumphant. They will not win the seat, of course. It’ll be held by the Lib Dems, albeit with a reduced majority. Rather, Labour will win because in spite of the rationale of attacking Labour, the Coalition Parties will not be able to resist going to each others throats. Both are in a funk and their grassroots are itching for a fight. Tories are fed up that their radical agenda has been watered down to appease the Lib Dems. For their part, the Lib Dems haven’t forgiven the Tories over AV and Lords Reform, and blame their collapse in support on association with their loathed partners in Government. Both sides want a very different budget, and the winner of Eastleigh will have their hand strengthened.
The Coalition will be weakened by Eastleigh. Splits and strains will be exacerbated and Labour will have got off fairly unscathed. Ed and his team shouldn’t rest too easy though; they got a free pass on this one. They won’t get one next time.