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When Eastleigh MP Christopher Huhne pleaded guilty to perverting the course of justice, he was appointed to the Chiltern Hundreds, triggering a by-election. In the 2010 General Election, Mr Huhne held the seat he had maintained for his party in 2005, beating Conservative candidate Maria Hutchings by 3,864 votes. The railroad town has had a Liberal Democrat MP since 1994, when the incumbent Conservative MP Stephen Milligan died through apparent auto-erotic asphyxiation. Scandals and turmoil have uprooted the embedded status quo in Eastleigh before.
Eastleigh is the 13th by-election in the present Parliament, and only two so far have changed the party affiliation of the seat: Bradford West and Corby. George Galloway MP’s triumph in Bradford West, a seat which Labour believed they would hold, is a concoction of peculiar circumstances: a local electorate being openly hostile to the incumbent party, a shady campaign of libellous murmurs about that party’s candidate, an immodest political preacher. Corby, an electoral windsock, has blown between Labour and Conservative candidates according to national currents. Louise Mensch had stood down for family reasons, and built a crumbly majority of 1,951 votes at the last election, when she beat then-Health Minister Phil Hope. At the by-election, Labour and Co-Operative candidate Andy Sawford thundered to victory, with a majority of 7,791 votes.
The Liberal Democrats put forward Mike Thornton, a parish and borough councillor since 2007, as their hopeful candidate. Cllr Thornton was committed to protecting ‘green spaces’, but had voted in favour of building 5,000 new homes on such spaces. This clear political point was buried by Conservative incompetence on social media, where a series of activists and MPs blindly published the exact same phrase on Twitter:
The Lib Dem Eastleigh campaign in turmoil as Party’s candidate admitted he ‘voted for’ 5,000 new houses on green spaces.
Maria Hutchings was once again the Conservative candidate, ploughing her own campaign into disarray with ill-advised words and ill-considered actions. Ms Hutchings had refused an invitation to a debate held by BBC Radio 5 Live, chaired by Victoria Derbyshire. The reason given for her absence was Ms Hutchings wanted to accompany a factory visit nearby with Prime Minister David Cameron. This refusal followed remarks about state schools, where Ms Hutchings had reportedly said:
William is very gifted which gives us another interesting challenge in finding the right sort of education for him – impossible in the state system. He wants to be a cardio-respiratory surgeon.
There are a number of state schools in the Eastleigh constituency rated ‘outstanding’ and other high marks in recent years. Despite Ms Hutchings railing herself against “Tory toffs”, this was an easy attack for her opponents, especially with the refrain: an out-of-touch Conservative.
John O’Farrell, a comedian and broadcaster, had been selected as the candidate for the Labour Party, who had previously not done well in Eastleigh. Comments in a book, Things Can Only Get Better, were pulled up against him. Mr O’Farrell had described his “surge of excitement” at the Brighton hotel bombing in 1984, and how he “disappointed” the bomb failed to kill Margaret Thatcher:
This was me…..wishing that they had got her. “Why did she have to leave the bathroom two minutes earlier?” I asked myself over and over again.
Mr O’Farrell offered the following defence on Twitter:
Re. BrightonBomb: I wrote an honest memoir and volunteered this fleeting bad thought from 1984 to illustrate how hatred can poison politics—
John O'Farrell (@mrjohnofarrell) February 27, 2013
Whilst there was some pressure for UKIP leader Nigel Farage to stand in Eastleigh, UKIP, elated by their recent success, selected healthcare expert and councillor Diane James. Cllr James had joined the party in 2010, after becoming “utterly disillusioned” in local political interference, and was transfixed by UKIP’s policy on grammar schools. UKIP have run a successful campaign, reflected in their polling results.
By-elections often attract micro-parties replicating their general election campaigns, as well as fun characters. Colin Bex of the Wessex Regionalists wants self-government for Wessex – a forlorn region of England covering Hampshire, Berkshire, Devon and Dorset. David Bishop of the Elvis Loves Pets Party also stood in the Corby by-election, obtaining 99 votes. The Peace Party candidate Jim Duggan wants to give voters the chance to reject military interventions. Ray Hall of the Beer, Baccy and Crumpet Party is determined to tackle the issue of pub closures. CRUMPET stands for ‘Countryside, Rates, Utilities, Marriage, Pensions, Employment, Taxation’, which are the party’s main concerns. The Monster Raving Loony William Hill Party candidate Howling Laud Hope, real name Alan Hope, is famous for standing against David Cameron in Witney in 2010. Dr Iain MacLennan is a retired consultation, and stands for the National Health Action Party, a new party which wants to “stop the increasing privatisation and commercialisation of the NHS”. Kevin Milburn of the Christian Party believes the government is out of touch on the issue of marriage. The Trade Unionist and Socialist Coalition have put forward Darren Procter, an executive member of the Rail, Maritime and Transport Workers Union, as their candidate, who opposed all cuts and privatisation of public services. Danny Stupple is a local chartered quantity surveyor and stands an independent candidate, on the ticket of “real marriage”, in opposition to the recent Marriage Bill. Michael Walters stands for the English Democrats, a practising Anglican and a member of the British Legion, and their party wants to establish an English Parliament.
In a victory for Britain, the British National Party is not running in the Eastleigh by-election.
There have been five methodical polls of the Eastleigh electorate, which place the Liberal Democrats in a narrow lead over the Conservatives. Labour did appear to jump from the first and second polls, but their gains have now stagnated and putrefied. The small sample sizes mean there is a large margin of error around the central estimate. UKIP have grown consistently, with only 3.8% of the vote at the 2010 General Election, the party now polls at around 21%.
The Liberal Democrats may have an advantage on postal votes. According to Survation:
The large number of expected postal votes may also give the Lib Dems an advantage, enabling their superior ground game to ‘lock in’ a large number of votes before polling day.
As well as fun and small party candidates, by-elections seem to attract controversy. The effect of this by-election on the national government, as it forces the two coalition partners to fight directly, is not easily understated. Each party is practising their positions on their planned amicable divorce in the 2015 General Election, with the Conservatives mocking the inconsistency and gelatinous spines of the ‘Fib Dems’, and the Liberal Democrats building upon their “ground game”. The allegations that surround Lord Rennard have also coincided with the by-election, with Liberal Democrat candidate saying he is “annoyed” by the focus placed on those allegations, rather than his campaign messages. Polly Toynbee, one of the Nazgûl at The Guardian, controversially and incontrovertibly suggested a conspiracy:
Where did the Lord Rennard sleaze reprise from 2009 suddenly come from, and why now in the final runup to election day? Blasted across every front page, Nick Clegg’s fumbling response hasn’t helped, but it doesn’t take an expert political nose to suspect this stinks.
Her insinuation misses the point – a number of people had been trying to keep the story from breaking until now. Also, Ms Toynbee complains about the Eastleigh by-election being “a particularly unedifying spectacle of the Westminster charade”, whilst knocking on doors in the constituency herself, thereby being part of that “unedifying spectacle”.
Eastleigh will not be particularly useful for determining national mood, as Labour are ascendant in national polls, but remain in electoral ditches here. It is rare that by-elections actually enlighten us, as the turnout is usually too low to make firm judgements other than apathy. The Eastleigh by-election does give political fans a sneak preview of the ferocious Liberal Democrat and Conservative marginal battles in the election to come.