ANALYSIS: THE EASTLEIGH BY-ELECTION
Following last night's by-election result in Eastleigh, we asked our resident Conservative and Liberal Democrat experts to give us their thoughts on where the parties now stand.
The Conservative View
This morning’s Lib Dem win in Eastleigh will disappoint but not surprise many in the Conservative ranks. Activist friends had been telling me that the reception they got on the streets and doorsteps of the constituency was at best lukewarm – and victory can be many things but it is rarely lukewarm. Don’t listen to any post-defeat bluster and back-tracking from Party Chairman Grant Shapps or any other Conservative frontbencher today that this was always going to be an uphill struggle etc – this was a seat the Conservatives could and should have won, and the high command knows it. The bookies even had the Conservatives as narrow favourites to win.
This was a by election the party badly needed to win, even before Moody’s downgraded the UK economy at the weekend. Eastleigh is exactly the sort of seat where the Conservatives need to gain ground at the next election. If they can’t win in a key marginal in the South East – a seat that was viewed as safely Conservative until 1994 – when the Lib Dems are scoring their lowest poll numbers in living memory and the sitting MP has been disgraced and awaits sentencing, what hope do they have against the Labour Party north of Watford? Nor is there much comfort to be had in the fact that Labour came fourth behind UKIP. The Labour Party were never serious contenders in this race – a point made all too clear by their selection of comedian and writer John O’Farrell as candidate – and the continued rise of UKIP, has clearly cost the Conservatives a much needed win and bodes ill for the party’s prospects in 2015. The pressure is now back on George Osborne to produce a game-changing budget next week.
James Ford was an aide to Mayor of London Boris Johnson (2010-12) and is an expert on London politics. He currently works as an adviser to both PLMR and the London Chamber of Commerce & Industry.
The Liberal Democrat View
At Lib Dem leaflet writing school, trainee Focus editors are encouraged to include a little box somewhere with the caption: “Three things to remember.” As we move into the post match analysis phase of the Eastleigh by-election coverage, there are, in my view three names that are well worth remembering too. The media have focused on the very public difficulties of Chris Huhne, Chris Rennard and Nick Clegg but outside the press photographers viewfinder there are three little known Liberal Democrats whose reputations will have been significantly enhanced by the result of the Eastleigh election.
The first is Keith House, Leader of Eastleigh Council. Former US Speaker of the House Tip O’Neil famously said that “All politics is local” and Keith House has just proved it. By steadily, consistently and determinedly focusing on local issues for years, Keith has built up a rock solid base of local councillors in Eastleigh, far away from the Westminster village. If anywhere was going to be receptive to the vitriolic Daily Mail led campaigns against the Liberal Democrats, you would have thought somewhere like Eastleigh would have been, but Keith’s careful attention to local concerns on things like planning decisions, bypasses and recycling collections has been able to brush aside the media onslaught against Nick Clegg.
The second person who will emerge well from this campaign is Victoria Marsom. An experienced election agent and campaign organiser Victoria masterminded the enormous voluntary effort that saw thousands of Lib Dem activists pounding the Hampshire pavements thrusting an endless stream of leaflets, newspapers, magazines, post cards, newsletters and apparently hand written letters through the letterboxes of Eastleigh. Whilst the media were looking everywhere for Liberal Democrat women who might have been harassed in a hotel lounge, this Liberal Democrat woman was organising the relentless harassment of every single voter in the Hampshire constituency. Victoria has got form having won a by election for Charles Kennedy and Sarah Teather back in 2003. This time she has again bought Nick Clegg some well needed respite by getting Mike Thornton elected.
And the third and final name to remember is Tim Gordon, the current Chief Executive of the Party. Tim Gordon was appointed as the Chief Executive last year taking over from Chris Fox, who stepped in when Chris Rennard suddenly stood down for health reasons in 2009. Although he had been a moderately active local activist in North London, Tim was not a life-long political junkie. He has brought to the party a huge wealth of experience from a more corporate world and is well placed to make sure that the party has more robust systems in place for dealing with those tricky and unsettling HR difficulties. Tim will have made sure that every single person on the Liberal Democrat payroll will have spent some of their time hitting the phones, or knocking on doors to help the voluntary activists’ effort in Eastleigh. A master strategist, Tim will have known where to target his limited resources and has done so with devastating effect.
Keith House, Victoria Marsom and Tim Gordon. Three names to remember.
Steven Gauge is a Senior Consultant at PLMR, and a former aide to Liberal Democrat leaders Charles Kennedy and Nick Clegg.