Politics writer Ashley Bebbington reports on the fiercely contested Eastleigh by-election
Eastleigh voters took to the polls on Tuesday to re-fill the parliamentary seat left vacant by the recent resignation of the disgraced Liberal Democrat MP and Cabinet member Chris Huhne.
The Lib Dems managed to hold the seat, but the Conservatives dropped into third place as a result of a strong challenge from the right. The UKIP candidate Diane James managed to outpoll Maria Hutchings by over a thousand, enjoying a combined swing of 24.2 per cent from the two governing parties.
Labour dropped into fourth place on what was to be a poor day for the two usually dominant forces in British politics.
Mr Huhne was forced to resign after it came to light that he had persuaded his ex-wife Vicky Pryce to take driving licence points for him after a speeding ticket he recieved back in 2003, when he was still an MEP. Both he and Ms Pryce were taken to court for perverting the course of justice.
Turnout reached a modest 52.7 per cent, a drop from 69.3 per cent at the last general election.
Deputy PM Nick Clegg applauded Lib Dem candidate Mike Thornton’s success, saying: “we overcame the odds and we won a stunning victory”. The Chris Huhne scandal surprisingly did not diminish their popularity in Eastleigh, a seat they have held since 1994.
Clegg insisted the results proved his party could still “be a party of government, and still win”. He declined to comment on the poor performance by his coalition partners and said they should “explain their poor result”.
However, the Lib Dems came close to losing to UKIP, with their second place finish reaching an unprecedented election result. The election marked UKIP’s best ever performance in a Westminster election, missing out on the seat by just 2,000 votes. UKIP leader Nigel Farage said this showed they had “connected with voters” and he was keen to stress that it was not a “freak result”. The UKIP candidate Diane James said beating the Tories was a “humongous shock” which marked a “seismic change” in UK politics.
Farage criticised the Tory party for “wasting their time” in working class constituencies such as Eastleigh, referring to them as a “bunch of posh boys who don’t know the price of milk”. He believes the three major parties are “frankly indistinguishable from each other” and the election result showed the popularity of a party who seek to offer something different.
Some critics argue UKIP are still only a “protest vote” party, picking up disillusioned voters and capitalising on the growing unpopularity of the Coalition Government. Prime Minister David Cameron was even convinced that this was the case; he believed Eastleigh voters wanted to register their protest and the Eastleigh by-election had served as an opportunity to do just that.
The Conservatives had been hoping to win the seat from their coalition partners, and had targeted it in a shortlist of potential gains for the next general election, which made the result all the more embarrassing. Still, Cameron argued the party would recover and he was confident they could win back those protest voters in the general election.
Underneath the rhetoric, Cameron must have been troubled by the result, since it is one of the seats the Tories must win if they want a majority in the next Parliament. The fact that they failed overturn the Lib Dems even after the Chris Huhne scandal, means that it is not looking good for an election fought under more typical circumstances.
Education Secretary Michael Gove said he was ‘gutted’ by his party’s humiliating third place finish. He insisted that the Conservatives would not make a shift to the right to counter the UKIP challenge, although the party leadership will likely come under pressure from Tory backbenchers who feel that UKIP are appealing to eurosceptic voters, and therefore stealing votes from them.
Labour’s position in the by-election made them look slightly more unelectable than before, with candidate John O’Farrell picking up only 4,088 votes. Ed Miliband did point out however that his party have never come close to winning the seat, even in their landslide election victory of 1997.
Nevertheless it was a bad start for Miliband’s new ‘One Nation’ approach, and which aims to win more seats in southern England. He called for his party to “redouble its efforts” and increase their appeal to voters in constituencies such as Eastleigh where Labour are not popular.