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. @Gary Gatter

    That’s unusually high for an English byelection.

    There goes DC’s “our voters stayed at home” defence.

  2. @RAF


    Have just pointed out that:

    “At the last byelection in Eastleigh in 1994, turnout was 58.2%.”

    Dwindling voters, maybe we need compulsory voting and include a none of the above option.

  3. Thats an amazing turnout

  4. Neil Hamilton is at the count, sort of liked him but never liked his wife very much.

  5. Oh dear, I’ve been moderated again, I think it was for rowdy behaviour, I will quiet down now


    I don’t think AW is around, we have free rein.

  7. Grant Schapps on the Beeb constantly trying to turn attention towards a poor Lab performance. Sugests he knows that the game is up for the Tories in Eastleigh.

  8. Lib Dems not as confident as they were an hour ago according to the Beeb

  9. Aaaah, but the Guardian blog is reporting from the future..

    “1.02am: Tim Farron may be being cautious, but Keith House, the Lib Dem agent here, is declaring victory. He’s just told my colleague Steven Morris that the Lib Dems have won.”

  10. RICHO
    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.


    Dunno that there’s been a shift to the left all that much. It’s more that the coalition shifted to the right and it isn’t working out as well as hoped. ..

  11. Grant Shaps doing a classic captain of the titanic declaring that its a ‘bad night for the iceberg’ performance.

  12. Relevance ?

  13. I do, of course. He’s from my neck of the woods. And shares my hair issues.

  14. The UKIP skinhead looks very uncomfortable and out of his depth on This Week

  15. The argument that “incumbent parties” never win by- elections is risible as the LDs ARE a bleedin’ incumbent govt party.

    Surprised AN doesn;t point that out to Shapps.

  16. CG

    If “relevance?” was aimed at me then the fact he is, in my view, hugely over-promoted.

  17. Guardian live reporting that LDs believe that htey have 2,500 – 3,000 majority

  18. I predict that the most important thing to come out of this election will be the right wing Tory response: viz – the rise of UKIP proves they themselves need to head further to the right, and off into the sunset.

    It will be a disaster for them.

  19. Yes, the govt never wins byes is a strange thing for the dems coalition partners to say, almost as if the libdems were not in govt! Prehaps they forgot

  20. BBC are saying there will not be a recount to decide second/third place if they are close. So we should not have too long to wait.

  21. The interesting figure to look at will be the turnout. All five of the opinion polls taken showed around 50% non-voters (without much variance). Now remember that all polls massively over-estimate the number of people who will vote because the people who refuse to answer at all are more likely to be people who don’t vote and in addition some of those who said they would do will have done it with low likelihood. So you would expect a real turnout of 40% or less.

    Now that the real turnout has been announced as 52.8% that shows the effectiveness of the GOTV operation, presumably mainly by the Lib Dems – given that the Conservatives have spent the last 3 weeks complaining there’s no one on the ground. UKIP clearly did have a little more organisation that they do in most places (not difficult) but it should be good for the Lib Dems.

  22. R4 repeating the LD claim for a 2,500 victory

  23. Farage has claimed second according to the Guardian.

    “I do think there is a moderate move in the country to the left, and that is indeed democracy”
    In fact, with the rest of the western world, with the exception of the coalition, against austerity as a deficit reduction strategy and in support of a Keynesean growth based and redistributive economic policy.
    Another aspect is that of “local evidence based” decisions (as we call it in the trade) voiced last evening by Simnon Hughes
    The electorate are clever enough to realise that all the national stuff – that may be scandal or intrigue, or rumours or speculation – is not as relevant as who will go and fight for the sort of things that Eastleigh needs”

  25. Guardian – Farage claiming they have come second. Where do the Tories go from here? If they adopt the same attitude as Shapps then they are doooomed

  26. Is there something on tonight?

  27. A stunning result for the Liberal Democrats despite having the panoply of media power against them . Their majority would have been tripled without that .

  28. Agents have beencalled to the table to dicuss disputed votes. Guardian reckons result coming very soon

  29. Any one know if the Lib Dems have won any previous by elections under Nick Clegg’s leadership ?


    “Is there something on tonight?”

    Is there anything else on tonight?

  31. Grant Shapps is like a footy manager whos team has just lost 6-0 against a lower league team, banging on about the linesman’s socks.

  32. If UKIP have done as well as it would appear, I think it is only a matter of time before they get an MP, many discounted this on this forum, due to being thinly spread, but via a byelection seems very likely now.


    Yes Dunfermline and West Fife in 2009.

    Nope not yet….

  35. Such is the relevance of by elections , Dunfermline went Labour a year later at 2010 GE

  36. Dunfermline West and Fife was before he assumed the leadership, unless Wiki has it wrong?

  37. Dunfermline West was February 2006, Clegg became leader in 2007

  38. @paulcroft

    He was like Apollo Creed in Rocky IV, except Andrew Neil threw Diane James into the ring on time.

    Poor lad..

  39. @RICHIEDAW and @SHELTS whoops, that should have been Dunfermline and West Fife in 2007, which was the year before Clegg became LibDem leader.

  40. GARY GATTER –Cheers but that was 2006 so this would be Clegg breaking his duck !!

  41. Prediction: The future’s bright, the future’s orange [red plus yellow]

    Tory panic means there will be talk, at the very least, of the need to move right[er] That means their VI will reduce further and UKIP’s will rise. There will be a domino effect.

    If the LDs find a way to keep around 50 mps with just 10% vote in 2015 that will actually be a lot fairer than before.

  42. Paul

    It won’t just be fairer it will be a bloodly miracle

  43. UKIP beat Toties by 1000 votes

  44. That should have been Tories

  45. Good early morning.

    What a result

  46. Snappers was saying it doesn’t mean anything, it’s a by election, it’s about local issues.

    But Farage was saying they campaigned on immigration. And there isn’t all that much of that in Eastleigh. ..

  47. As predicted during the evening LD> UKIP > Con > Lab

  48. Snappers = Shapps

  49. So Ukip came second!

    Well this could be interesting, Cameron could be in trouble. Maybe!

  50. Well,that was worth sitting up for!

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