Wednesday, 6 February 2013

Labour and the Eastleigh By-Election

Labour's prospects for the Eastleigh by-election don't look too great. Being that rarest of beasts a safe(ish) Liberal Democrat seat, the 2010 general election left a yawning gap of just under 20,000 votes between Chris Huhne and third-placed Labour. The majority over his Tory opponent was around 3,800 and it's a seat where Labour hasn't known second place since the 1994 by-election. Even Blair at his newest and shiniest wasn't enough to turn the heads of LibDem-supporting locals. On 3rd May last year, the more or less co-terminous borough council elections saw the LibDems cement their dominance and increase their representation by two to 40 councillors vs four Tories. With Nigel Farage throwing in the towel, it's all a foregone conclusion, isn't it?

Possibly. Possibly not.

I think an interesting indicator of Labour's coming performance may be found in last year's votes in the 15 borough council seats.

This is appropriate for a couple of reasons. These were second order elections (i.e. elections where, for most people, the outcomes do not matter as much as the 'first order' general elections) and are more likely to reflect disaffection/protest votes, and it is reasonable to assume that LibDem voter dissatisfaction with their dark doings would be reflected in some way. It's reasonable to expect to see a proportion of the softer LibDem vote returning to the Labour fold, and anticipate the Tories losing ground to UKIP.

The May 2012 vote broke down like this:

LibDem  12,210    45.35% (46.5%)

Tory         7,202    26.75% (39.3%)

Labour     4,050    15.04%   (9.6%)

UKIP        2,887    10.72%   (3.6%)

Others         576      2.14%   (1.0%)

Total = 26,925

Percentages in brackets are proportions at the 2010 general election. The borough council site is here.

The 2012 shares indicate that indeed Labour has won back a section of the hardcore voters who turn out for local elections and UKIP is breaking away Tory votes. But, surprisingly, the LibDem vote has remained large and virtually unchanged. There could be a couple of reasons for this. I'm not au fait with Eastleigh Borough Council's performance, but there is little change from the previous year's results, indicating at least satisfaction. The second is it's quite possible that a number of LibDem borough councillors have a personal following who turn out time after time. And lastly, Huhne - as one of the few recognisable LibDem MPs - was apparently very visible during the campaign.

But that was then and this is now. The manner of Huhne's resignation will likely negate any incumbency advantage, though given the character of the constituency I doubt the LibDems as a brand would be damaged in the eyes of their support. Local issues can have something of an impact too. Though it didn't have much of an influence on the borough election outcomes, disquiet and protests over building 1,700 new homes could be amplified by the national media spotlight and impact negatively on the LibDem vote.

So, it's not looking good for Labour then. That said, I still think Labour should campaign hard and fight to win. As Luke Akehurst notes,
* We’ve had a bunch of good by-election results but, with the exception of Corby, they have all been in places where the media can discount it as our core vote holding up or coming home. An opportunity has come up for us to demonstrate what is happening in the “deep south” where many would like to write us off.
* One or other of the coalition parties has to lose. They can’t both win so this election will either damage the Tories or the Lib Dems. It might even damage both if we recover and UKIP does well. In contrast we have nothing to lose as we are starting from such a low base. A Lib Dem loss would be serious – the first Liberal or Lib Dem seat they have lost in a by-election since 1957. A Tory failure to take a target marginal off the Lib Dems in these circumstances shows they are not in the game for a winning a majority in 2015.
* We need to prove there are no no-go areas for Labour. If Ed’s “One Nation” message is to work, we have to get credible Labour results – not necessarily wins, but traction in our direction – in places like Hampshire.
* If we do well here it helps us argue that a Labour vote is not a wasted vote in lots of the rural shire county councils which go to the polls this May.
While it looks unlikely at the moment a strong Labour campaign, difficulties among the Coalition (the LibDems are sure to revert to dirty type if it looks like the Tories are gaining traction), high profile idiocies between now and the 28th, AND the UKIP media circus could, in total, be a great leveller. It's an outside chance, but a challenge is there to be met, not avoided. So, see you on the streets of Eastleigh.


Jim Jepps said...

I doubt Labour can win this by-election but I happen to think Luke Akehurst has a point when he recommends "throwing the kitchen sink at it".

There are two reasons for this.

First we know Labour are doing quite well in the polls and that they are able to significantly increase their vote in safe seats. We have a lot less evidence on how well Labour does in weaker areas.

It's not much use under FPTP keeping seats with increased majorities if you can't win new seats in enough numbers to form a government.

So Labour need to prove the kind of big jumps in safe seats are possible in place like Eastleigh.

The second point is that the 2010 result gives a falsely weak impression of Labour's support in the area. There was a drop of over 10% from 2005. I think that 10% will be relatively easy to back, and with an extra slice of longer term ld's coming over.

So, with UKIP slicing off a chunk of tories and Labour taking a big bite of LD I think have the chance to do very well and create the impression they can achieve some very impressive election results.

If they don't try it risks creating the impression that the LDs are not doing as badly as polls suggest.

Dick Leonard said...

I quite agree that this is an opportunity for Labour. With both Libdems and Cons likely to lose support and Labour and UKIP to pick up, this has the propsect of becoming a four-way marginal, with the winner perhaps getting home with no more than 35% of the poll.

Jim Jepps said...

John O'Farrell has thrown his hat in the ring for Labour apparently. I quite like him.

Phil said...

I like him too. This has all the ingredients for a fascinating by-election.

John may be a "celeb" candidate, but most people outside the commentariat will not have heard of him. But his self-deprecating easy-engaging style will go down extremely well on local doorsteps. So any boost can't be put down to the celeb factor.

The level of breakage the Tories will suffer thanks to UKIP will be interesting, as will what happens to the soft liberal vote who are anti-Tory. If the borough council results are anything to go by, most of that support has remained put. And then there's the first outing of the Health Action party, who could take votes from all over the place ...

John said...

The most interesting sociological point is that the electorate vote on the basis of fashion and tribal allegiance. When they vote they vote for tribal leaders and are then puzzled and disillusioned by the fact that these people do not give a damn. They even take public oaths and renege on them even though an "oath" means they will NEVER break it. See Eastleigh Byelection.