REALITY BITES IN EASTLEIGH
Let the post-mortems begin. Everyone with an opinion on the Eastleigh result has been getting in on the act, so I might as well get my two-penneth in. These are my conclusions.
1) Rumours of the Liberal Democrats’ death have been greatly exaggerated.
The circumstances of this by-election couldn’t have been worse from Nick Clegg’s point of view. The vacancy occurred because the Lib Dem incumbent committed a serious crime, the sleaze allegations of the Rennard affair were abysmally handled and the party’s national poll ratings had hit a new low. Despite this and almost three years of being panned and written off, they held on. The Liberal Democrats remain vulnerable in seats they recently captured at Labour’s expense, but in areas where they have been traditionally strong, their support will hold up. Whatever their share of the national vote at the next election, they will probably retain most of their seats, increasing significantly the chances of another hung parliament. Deal with it.
2) Portraying the Liberal Democrats as indistinguishable from the Tories is a dead end for Labour.
Labour activists may get a self-righteous glow from saying that the Liberal Democrats are just as bad as the Tories, but voters don’t agree. Labour made that the main plank of their Eastleigh campaign and it didn’t work. Voters were right to see through it because barely a week goes by without further evidence of serious and growing differences between the coalition partners. There is a silver lining here for Labour. That fact that the Liberal Democrats managed to squeeze the Labour vote suggests that there may still be some mileage in the anti-Tory tactical voting that has benefitted both parties for the last twenty years. Emphasising areas of agreement might be the best way for Labour to unlock that to its advantage.
3) David Cameron has played his best card in trying to see off the UKIP threat and it hasn’t worked.
Cameron must have thought he had blown the wheels off the UKIP bandwagon with his EU referendum gambit. He was sadly mistaken. That’s because he, like most of the political and media classes, continues to make the mistake of thinking that the UKIP phenomenon is primarily about Europe when it isn’t. Vox popping on the campaign trail confirmed the conclusion of Lord Ashcroft’s detailed polling analysis of UKIP supporters – that surprisingly few of them think Europe is important compared to issues like immigration and the economy. We have to stop thinking about UKIP as a single-issue party.
4) Voters are looking for something that conventional politics isn’t offering.
UKIP is very different from Beppe Grillo’s Five Star Movement in Italy, but both share something important in common – a rejection of business as usual politics and the articulation of a popular desire for fundamental change. As I have written before, the last time something like this happened was in the mid-1970s when the post-war consensus collapsed under the strain of stagflation. Thatcherism eventually answered the desire for an alternative, but the consensus it forged has also now run its course. Trying to revive that consensus is a waste of energy. Success will go to the party that defines its replacement.
5) Labour can’t expect to win the next election by default.
Labour shouldn’t dismiss this result or lose too much sleep over it either. Corby is far more representative of the kind of seat the party needs to win if it is to return to power. But it does show that Labour is not the automatic repository of anti-Government sentiment and power is not going to fall magically into its lap however unpopular and unsuccessful the coalition gets. Getting Labour into a winning position from the nadir of May 2010 was always going to be a whole-term project. It is moving in the right direction, but still has a long way to go.
6) Nor can Labour expect to win the next election by mimicking the Tories or tacking towards a centre-ground that no longer exists.
Having come third in one of their key target seats, the Conservative brand looks deeply tarnished this morning. Why anyone sees electoral mileage in copying it I do not know. Nor is there anything to be gained in searching for a long-vanished centre-ground. Voters feel deeply insecure and are inclined to vent their frustrations at immigrants, welfare recipients and bankers alike. They are moving left and right at the same time, supporting welfare cuts and zero net-migration along with caps on top pay that even I consider draconian. I don’t pretend that creating a viable political strategy out of this is easy. But I do think the egalitarian patriotism of Ed Miliband’s One Nation politics provides the most plausible and intelligent basis for working it out. It certainly beats the Blairism-by-numbers approach of those who think Labour can win the next election by dusting off the New Labour playbook of 1997.