Eastleigh By-Election

Tomorrow is, as anyone who follows politics can hardly avoid being aware, the Eastleigh by-election. In many ways it is the most interesting and important by-election of the Parliament so far. We’ve had one proper Conservative-Labour marginal in the form of Corby, but given Labour’s strong lead in the national polls a Labour gain was almost a foregone conclusion. The most interesting sort of by-election in this Parliament was always going to be one in a Lib Dem-Conservative marginal.

There have been five polls of Eastleigh during the very short by-election campaign, two commissioned by Lord Ashcroft, two by Survation for the Mail on Sunday and one by Populus for the Times:

Ashcroft 05/02/13 34 19 31 13
Survation/Mail on Sunday 08/02/13 33 13 36 16
Survation/Mail on Sunday 22/02/13 33 13 29 21
Populus/Times 22/02/13 28 11 33 21
Ashcroft 24/02/13 28 12 33 21

All the polls have shown the Liberal Democrats and Conservatives quite closely matched, three with leads for the Lib Dems, two with leads for the Conservatives. The only changes between the Ashcroft poll at the start of the campaign and the ones at the end of it is a further drop in the Labour vote and an increase in UKIP’s vote. From the polling you’d expect quite a close race, with the Lib Dems perhaps more likely to win (which, given the Liberal Democrats continuing very strong performance in local elections in Eastleigh since 2010, is what I’d have expected to see). A remaining unknown is what effect, if any, the Lord Rennard scandal has. The most recent poll by Lord Ashcroft was conducted after the Rennard story broke and shows no obvious impact at all, but clearly the story can continued to roll on since then and become increasingly about how Nick Clegg has handled the issue.

Come Friday we’ll know the result, and people will be clambering to declare what it “means”. Well, I’ll start with the same message I give after every by-election – the result won’t tell us anything about the national picture that we can’t get a much better handle on from national polling. By-elections are a creature that is more different from national elections than it is similar: they happen in only one constituency, in this case one where the Lib Dems are overwhelmingly dominant at a local level and have an unrivalled network of local deliveries and supporters; there is an intensity of campaigning and campaigning spending that dwarfs that in any general election and, most importantly, it makes no difference at all to the government of the country. It is just one MP, in one constituency, so however people vote the government won’t change, only their local MP will. By-elections are either different from national polling, in which case it is a result of the unusual circumstances of by-elections themselves and the particular circumstances of the seat, or they are very much in line with national polling, in which case they don’t tell us anything new.

Anyway, let’s assume the results are as the polls suggest – that the Liberal Democrats narrowly hold the seat over the Conservatives, UKIP do extremely well and Labour get squeezed down to fourth place. Journalists will write comment pieces concluding that the Lib Dems will do much better than the polls suggest as they’ll still be able to get tactical support from Labour, that UKIP pose a serious threat to the Conservatives and that UKIP voters DON’T seem willing to vote tactically for the Tories and, for the Conservative leaning amongst them, that the poor Labour performance shows that Ed Miliband’s “One Nation” mantra is just empty words.

All of these conclusions are nonsense.

Or at least, while some of them may very well be true, none of them will be things we can tell from Eastleigh. Firstly, if it votes in line with the polls Eastleigh doesn’t really show the Lib Dems withstanding the national swing in seats they hold. In the final Ashcroft poll they were down 14 points on their general election score, which is pretty much what the polls show is happening to their national support. Secondly, I wouldn’t conclude anything about tactical voting either Lab to LD or UKIP to Con – by-elections are very special cases, voters get an intense amount of literature and contact from the parties imploring them to vote tactically and send a message, and their vote won’t change who governs so in many ways people are free to vote without consequence. The argument about Labour’s one nation message is just point scoring – it is perfectly normal for a third party to be squeezed in a tight by-election and despite the exuberance of some Labour supporters at the start of the campaign it was bleeding bloody obvious from the beginning that Labour had no hope whatsoever in this seat.

While the by-election won’t actually tell us much, that definitely DOESN’T mean that its not important. On the contrary, I think whatever the result it will be extremely important in terms of party morale and the political narrative.

David Cameron’s backbenches are already extremely restless and for the Conservatives to win a majority at the next election the party need to win a substantial number of Liberal Democrat seats. If the Tories win Eastleigh David Cameron can reassure his MPs that they can take Lib Dems seats, if they fail to do so it risks increasing the unrest on the Tory backbenches and putting further pressure on Cameron and Osborne (especially if UKIP run them close – if UKIP beat the Conservatives then Tory backbenchers risk having a nervous breakdown).

The Lib Dems meanwhile definitely need a win to try and move the narrative on from the Rennard scandal. The blow of losing a seat on top of the ongoing crisis around the party’s response to Rennard could be extremely difficult.

The final possibility is a UKIP win. It is extremely unlikely – all three of the final polls had them in third place and 12 points behind the leading party. The general consensus is that they had the momentum in the election, and the Rennard story may have pushed more people away from the Liberal Democrats in the final days… but equally, a lot of people would already have voted by post anyway. It would suggest a problem with the by-election polls if UKIP did win. Nevertheless, were it to happen it would have a serious effect on politics, you’d expect a big boost in UKIP national support and the effect on Conservative party morale would probably be drastic.

So when the result comes in on Friday morning don’t look at what it tells us about public opinion – by-elections are by definition unusual – look at how it effects the political narrative.

432 Responses to “Eastleigh By-Election”

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  1. If you are hard right, most people will seem to the left of you. Doesn’t mean they are hard left or even left. ..

  2. ^ it’s an incredibly left wing audience, and it doesn’t take Sherlock Holmes to fathom that one out. It is most weeks now, certainly rarely balanced, which is a shame.

  3. Richo,
    as has been said on here on several occasions, anyone can apply for tickets. If your right wing friends aren’t interested in applying then that is not the fault of the BBC.

  4. Maybe its a bit like fat people thinking everyone else is a bit on the thin side.

  5. Peter Bell

    To be fair I think the lefty BBC do round up all the socialists in the area in advance of these proggies.

  6. A balanced audience is not likely to mean 50% with your views. A balanced audience might not even mean ten percent with your views. ..

    A balanced audience might well mean a majority opposed to your views. Which would be balanced but unlikely to happibate.

    The point is that the public as a whole may not share your views, and a balanced representation would reflect that.

  7. Happinate

  8. @RICHO

    I always feel that the BBC fill the audience with Tories.

    So maybe the BBC get it about right.

  9. A representative audience ANYWHERE IN THE UK, will not still be mostly pro-wealth distribution, pro-NHS, and even pro-BBC.

    What a shame parliament doesn’t reflect that.

  10. A request

    Will people NOT write in to tell me what I have just heard on QT as I.ll have just heard it.


  11. @ Peter bell,
    I think on balance I have more left wing friends…

  12. I think QT audiences, being self-selecting, tend to be dominated by people who are “angry with the government”.

    Right now that would make them left-leaning.

  13. labourlist liveblog:

    “23.38: A very credible Labour source tells me that UKIP could be as little as 2% behind the Lib Dems….”

  14. Neil A
    “I think QT audiences, being self-selecting, tend to be dominated by people who are “angry with the government”.
    Right now that would make them left-leaning.”

    Surely the QT audience should be packed with folk from the right flank of the Tory party then?

  15. It’s not like there’s a shortage of right wingers unhappy with the government. Osborne didn’t even seem to like his own budget. ..

    But it’s not like the coalition don’t have lots of activists happy to slog for their parties…

  16. Please write in what you hear on QT as I can’t hear it

  17. Paul,
    From my own experience I know that when I was a LD member and QT was held in Newcastle, I, together with all other LDs, was invited/encouraged to apply for a ticket. Unless you are suggesting that the Beeb then only allocate tickets to the left (and how would they know who is who?) then as I said to Ricoh, it is up to the parties to encourage their members to attend.

    One thought, as the program is usually held in urban areas rather than the shires then it could result in more Lab applying on the basis that more of them live locally.

  18. Sounds like Tories looking at third place. Poor result given its a target seat. Cruising to Labour at next GE at the moment, what a great election to lose..

  19. From the Guardian live blog:

    “According to one party official, around 20 boxes have been counted already. There are 68 boxes in all to count.”


    “The Lib Dems and Ukip are both saying that it’s looking as if Ukip has come second, but they are not making firm predictions yet.”

  20. Just looking at the Twitterverse. There’s a tweet from Lab List that says UKIP around 2% behind LD. No idea what has happened to the Cons. Has the Con vote collapsed?

    Result expected around 4am, apparently.

  21. I don’t know if any of you use the constituency section of this website, but AW has done a wonderful overhaul on it. Go look!

    Not normally this much activity on the site approaching midnight; is everyone waiting (like me) for Eastleigh?

  22. RICHO
    @ Peter bell,
    I think on balance I have more left wing friends…


    Well that isn’t hard if you are hard right. Most will seem to the left, even if soft right. …

  23. @PAULCROFT and @RICHARD IN NORWAY, no fighting. Apparently PoliticsHome has a running report on QT.

  24. Where are all these socialists I keep hearing about? Or is this a case of “if you don’t agree with ‘sencible’ folk you must be a socialist”

    Is anyone here a socialist? I’m sure there is one and of course laszlo is a marxist, any others?

  25. Sky News says result expected around 2am.


    What’s happening at Eastleigh? :-)
    I am watching three live blogs plus here.

  27. @carfrew,

    Not sure what you mean by hard right. I actually vote based on policies and what appeals, not left or right dogma, which seems to be the opposite on the far left, which by definition would and do criticise anything from the Tories, even it was a huge redistribution of wealth.

  28. Even old Labour weren’t very socialist. Many right singers are quite socialist and don’t even know it. ..

    Because many right wingers haven’t read much Marx so they think socialism is what the right wing press tells them it is.

  29. peter bell

    apologies – I forgot you don’t do jokes. Just to clarify, my comment is what as known as “ironic” – viz I do NOT think the BBC scour the streets for socialists to be on QT.

    Also I don’t watch QT – I hate it – I meant TW, wot I like.

  30. Right wingers, but singers too, !!…

  31. Richard, I’m a champagne socialist. Does that count? (Feel terrible for not just giving all my money to the government, but eh…)

  32. RICHO
    Not sure what you mean by hard right. I actually vote based on policies and what appeals, not left or right dogma, which seems to be the opposite on the far left, which by definition would and do criticise anything from the Tories, even it was a huge redistribution of wealth.


    By hard right, I mean people to whom most others would be to the left of them.

    I’m sure you vote on what appeals, but that doesn’t mean you don’t tend to mostly prefer right wing/Tory policies.

  33. Sam Macrory – Twitter
    “Tory MP told me today vote had “collapsed”. Spent 90 minutes on phone. Spoke with zero Tory voters”.

  34. @ CYT

    Richard, I’m a champagne socialist.
    You’re like my son, he says everybody should have a mansion & a Ferrari; it wouldn’t cheapen the experience for him at all. :-)

  35. Paul,
    sorry, I should know by now that you are rarely serious :-). Unfortunately I tend to take things at face value

  36. If Nigel Farage had stood, would UKIP have had a landslide?

  37. Gary


  38. anyway, I am a realist and I do think there is a moderate move in the country to the left, and that is indeed democracy, so I do think labour will comfortably get in next time with a sizeable majority.

  39. Looks like, from what John Pienar is saying on the Andrew Neil show, that both myself and my friend campaigning in Eastleigh today, have called this by-election horribly wrong. Horribly on two counts. Firstly, my forecasting skills are obviously on the wane and, secondly, the thought of a smirking, self-satisfied Nigel Farage on tomorrow’s news bulletins fills me with dread.

    And I’d have liked John O’Farrell and Labour to have done better too.

  40. Weren’t UKIP being undercounted by those polls due to reallocation of DKs? In any case the large proportion of don’t know/would not say, adds a certain air of unpredictability to it all. Anyway we shall see how it all goes, shortly.

  41. @ CB11

    Are they now saying that they believe UKIP have won?


    A consensus seems to be growing that the Tories have come third. UKIP and LibDems are battling it out for first place.

  43. peter

    I’m always serious – especially when I am being ironic and – as I like to think – extraordinarily witty.

  44. @AmberStar

    The consensus on Twitter/blogs seems to be the LDs have won/will win, with UKIP a close second and the Tories some way behind in third. The LDs are almost calling the seat already.

  45. From LabourList:

    ” Ok, so we’re now at the point when every party has completed the “sampling” process. And based on what we’re hearing, Labour expect the Lib Dems to win, with UKIP second. Now that’s only based on the sampling – I can’t stress that enough. But Labour’s sampling for by-elections has been good in the past. Although until the turnout figure is released (which is happening now, I think) we won’t really know how accurate the sampling is.”

  46. If LibDems win and Tories are third, then the Tories will be the big story tomorrow. If UKIP win (looking unlikely now) then UKIP will be the big story.

  47. I think we can look forward to much whistling – or something – in the wind by Tories, until the next fiasco.

    Budget anyone?

  48. Practically everyone calling the seat for the LD. Battle for second and third.

    Impressive performance from the LDs after days of terrible headlines AND the Chris Huhne affair.

  49. @ Gary, Raf

    Thank you!

  50. Turnout was 52.8% (2010 was 69.3%).

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