It may seem odd, in my first piece on this website, to talk about the 2015 election being effectively over as a contest. Indeed, over two years away from the expected election month of May 2015, it would seem nothing short of foolish. Margaret Thatcher’s chances of re-election looked hopeless from the moment she set foot in Downing Street in 1979, with catastrophic polling figures that would not turn around until the Falklands War. David Cameron himself seemed set for a huge majority at many points during Labour’s third term, yet ended up 20 seats short of an overall majority when the dust settled from election day in 2010.
However, from the moment that it became clear that Chris Huhne’s position was untenable, resulting in this by-election in Hampshire, it has always seemed as though there was a huge amount at stake. And all of this in a seat where it impossible for the main opposition to win. The last time that the Conservatives won Eastleigh was in 1992- it did not come as a particular surprise, and there was in fact a small swing to the Tories away from the Liberal Democrats. The majority was 17, 702. It is perhaps telling that this was the last time that the Conservatives won an overall majority.
The Conservative party seem to have only recently woken up to the idea that the challenge of them winning a majority in the House of Commons is actually a rather huge one. As mentioned, 1992 was their last outright win, with a majority of 21 for John Major’s party. Since then, the strength of the Liberal Democrats has roughly tripled- and mostly at the expense of the Conservatives. To win in 2015, the Tories not only have to hold their seats where Labour are challenging- a tough enough challenge as it is, given recent polling- but must also take seats directly from the Liberal Democrats. That includes places such as Eastleigh.
Two further problems have compounded the Conservatives’ chances of victory. Firstly, the defeat of the boundaries bill is clearly a huge blow for the party. Secondly, the rise of UKIP could quite feasibly cost the Tories seats at the next election, even if it remains distinctly unlikely that UKIP will win any themselves. UKIP’s true support is in my view, still unknown. Cameron’s Europe speech was expected to quell most fears about a splitting of the Right. UKIP polling at 14% with ComRes would suggest that Cameron has more convincing to do.
However, UKIP polling 14% at a general election is in my opinion, incredibly unlikely. Many people will return to their natural voting habitats come 2015, and often, that comes down to who voters think can feasibly form a government (or in the Lib Dems’ case, part of a government). UKIP could cost the Conservatives a few seats, but it would be a surprise if it ended up being the decisive factor in a Tory victory or defeat.
No, the real issue for David Cameron is ensuring that he can win in Lib Dem/Tory marginals. The gay marriage vote could arguably be seen as a spot of ‘love-bombing’ towards right-leaning Lib Dems. Why vote for the weaker part of the coalition when you can have the real thing? The trouble is, there isn’t all too much Lib Dem vote left to take from. When the Lib Dems hold Eastleigh (and I am convinced that they will), tactical voting will play a huge part. Many Labour voters- despite all the talk of wanting Lib Dem ‘annihilation’ in 2015- will hold their nose and vote yellow to keep the blues out. They’ve done it for years, and they’ll continue doing it until something very drastic changes. And if going into coalition with the Tories doesn’t stop Labour voters marking their ballot for the Lib Dem candidate, then it’s hard to see what will.
So what of Labour and Ed Miliband in this crucial by-election? If Miliband is honest, he would love nothing more than for the Lib Dem vote to hold up in places like Eastleigh come 2015- if that means some very poor vote percentages and possible fourth place finishes (unlikely here I think), then so be it. Labour’s real hope is that they can take back a chunk of the Lib Dem vote in Labour/Tory marginals. The Tories should quite rightly be terrified by some of the numbers here. In Labour’s top target seat, North Warwickshire, there is a Conservative majority of 54. There is a pool of 5481 Liberal Democrat voters for Labour to chip away at here- let alone convincing non-voters and Tories from the last election to vote Labour. You would expect this to be the case in Labour’s top target seat. So how about their 50th? Cannock Chase. Tory majority of 3195. Lib Dem voters last time round? 7732. Even in Labour’s 100th target seat- Jacqui Smith’s old seat, Redditch- there are 7750 Lib Dem voters to the Tory majority of 5821.
Nobody is expecting 80 or 90% of Lib Dems to suddenly switch to Labour in 2010. However, it is possible that around 50% could, which is something I will be examining in a future post. The point is that the Tories are in a very tricky spot. They will want the Lib Dem vote to hold up in Labour/Conservative marginals, but to collapse in Lib Dem/Conservative marginals. For Conservatives hoping for the former, they may be advised to look at last years by-election in Corby, where Labour increased their vote by 9.8%. The Lib Dems? They dropped by 9.5%. Eastleigh may be the first indication that the latter hope is also not going to materialise.
The Conservatives could well prove me wrong in Eastleigh- however their shocking choice of candidate, coupled with the traditionally strong Lib Dem ground game at by-elections, would suggest that the small amount of polling we have had from Eastleigh could be roughly correct. The only surprise in this by-election could well be that the Liberal Democrat majority goes up- it would be a huge shot in the arm for Nick Clegg- and possibly the start of something terminal for David Cameron.