mnmlist: Don’t Panic! Eastleigh was a good result for Labour

An outbreak of hyperbole and gloom-laden predictions are to be expected at each by-election. After all, journalists have a lot of paper and airtime to fill and figures from all parties can be found who will say daft things and draw national-level conclusions from an election in one small place. The only consistent thing is that, for any politician, the message from any by-election will chime, almost precisely, with their own preferences.

The question, then, is can Eastleigh tell us anything useful? Well, the answer is, a cautious ‘yes.’

What Eastleigh tells us is that Labour ought not to panic. For Labour to win an overall majority in 2015 it needs the Lib-Dems to hold its marginal seats in the south and south west where the Conservatives are the main challenger. In Eastleigh, they did this. The note of caution is that the Lib-Dem vote fell in line with national polling. However, this was offset by a big drop in Conservative support.

A bad result for Labour would have been one where it had done better, attracting disaffected Lib-Dems, with the consequence that the Conservatives won the seat. That would have boded ill for 2015 and, potentially, made Mr. Cameron’s task of securing an overall majority for himself somewhat easier.

As it is, Mr. Cameron will be in deep trouble with his backbenchers after coming third behind UKIP. This, too, is good for Labour. A Tory move to the right in an electoral system requiring an appeal to the centre would be hugely welcome.

And what of UKIP? They have become the home of protest voters in by-elections, the recipients of the ‘You’re all the same’ anti-politics sentiment. While this is worrying from a democratic theory perspective, there is no evidence that UKIP support in by-elections or in EU elections (where they must be favourites now to win most votes), will translate into votes at a general election. Labour’s hope is that UKIP attracts sufficient support to deny the Conservatives in marginal seats; Labour’s fear is that it is not clear that UKIP support is taken predominantly from former Tory voters.

In policy terms, Eastleigh tells us little that we didn’t already know. Labour needs a policy on immigration that is reasonable and understandable. We have known this since 2010. Now might be a good time to come out against Turkish membership of the EU. Turkish membership is not on the cards in the near future anyway and clear opposition now would be popular with voters.

Labour also needs a narrative about where it wants to take the country. But, again, this is nothing new since 2010. For a party with a rich social democratic heritage of solidarity and equality, it is disappointing that our leader adopted a nineteenth century Tory notion of ‘one nation’ as our flagship slogan. It is an elite level shorthand for ‘We are going to the centre’ but, to historically illiterate voters, it is just a slogan, not a vision. On the vision thing, Labour can, and must, do better.

I conclude with one final thing that Eastleigh can tell us. The victorious Lib-Dem won with 32% of the vote, ahead of UKIP on 27.8% and the Conservatives on 25.4% on a turnout of just short of 53%. What Eastleigh tells us is that, under our electoral system, you do not have to be first past the post or even very close to the post to win. In a country that claims to be a democracy, this is a huge systemic failure that will need to be corrected if we are to claim to have a trustworthy democratic polity.

Dr. Adam Spencer (Vice Chair, Nottinghamshire Fabian Society)