Tuesday, February 10, 2015

The Liberal Democrats made too much of the Eastleigh by-election

Liberal Democrat activists have remained remarkably cheerful despite our abysmal national opinion poll ratings and our failure to score even one per cent of the vote at the Rochester and Strood by-election in November.

The chief reason for this may be an earlier by-election in this parliament, Eastleigh, which we held in defiance of many predictions.

But I wonder if we did not make too much of Eastleigh. For the Liberal Democrat vote fell substantially - Mike Thornton received 32.1 per cent, against the 46.5 per cent Chris Huhne recorded at the 2010 general election.

The reason we held the seat despite this decline was that the Conservatives and Ukip split the anti Lib Dem vote almost evenly.

And we aided both by a spectacularly bad Conservative candidate and an inept campaign. Having chosen a right-wing headbanger to carry the Tory flag, their campaign slogan appeared to be:
"Ukip are right about everything but you mustn't vote for them."
Nor I am convinced that holding the seat despite our previous MP being jailed was such an achievement. I doubt that the thought of asking someone else to take your speeding points is particularly shocking to many votes - a theory that early coverage of the by-election rather supported.

Indeed, while I have been told many times over the years that Chris Huhne is unpopular with lots of Lib Dem activists, I have never come across any evidence to support this idea.

The reality was that he was a popular MP, the Liberal Democrat council was exceptionally well run, the constituency party was large and active, and that the national party put in an extraordinary effort.

Add all these factors together and it does not seem such a surprise that we held Eastleigh.

There are reasons for Liberal Democrats to be cheerful, notably the constituency polls that Lord Ashcroft published in the autumn of last year. Many of these show both the Liberal Democrat and Conservative votes declining and us holding on surprisingly easily in some seats,

And I am not worried that Nick Clegg will lose Sheffield Hallam. This is not so much that I believe Nick is immensely popular as because I cannot picture Labour winning a prosperous suburban seat like this.
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But I think we may have been guilty, quite understandably given the avalanche of bad news over the past years, of making more of the Eastleigh by-election than it warrants.


Hywel said...

"This is not so much that I believe Nick is immensely popular as because I cannot picture winning a prosperous suburban seat like this."

I've some sympathy with that. But it's hard to ignore 4 different polls, over a reasonable amount of time all showing a simlar patter (ie its very marginal).

That this has now fed into a sense of momentum will only make things more difficult.

The Labour vote is artificially low due to a long-standing squeeze (it was the only seat won by the LDs to see the Labour vote fall in 1997 - and in 92). I've heard it suggested that the educated nature of the constituency made the tactical argument easier to win. However those are just the sort of voters for whom a tactical vote has not been a consideration since 2010. That may not hold for a General Election but who knows!

I wouldn't bet either way - though I think Nick will hold on by a narrow but not actually uncomfortable type of margin and that will be largely down to the historic organisation. One of the lessons that can be taken from Eastleigh is that long standing organisation, records of who votes what way and and understanding of "how we win here" make a big difference.

Jonathan Calder said...

Hywel: Many thanks for the comment.

The sentence you quote should have read: "I cannot picture Labour winning".

As it now does.