Why the results of the Eastleigh by-election don’t matter.
Last week the results of the hotly contested by-election finally came in, and to no-one’s surprise the Liberal Democrats won. Well, not everyone thought it was so clear cut, but that is a more a reflection on political commentators and pundits than it was a reflection of facts on the ground. You see the key thing about the Eastleigh by-election was how nothing did really change as opposed to the Nick Clegg narrative of a “Stunning Victory” or David Cameron’s “Disappointing” Result for the Conservatives.
Firstly let’s remember the facts:
Eastleigh was a Liberal Democrat held seat in 2010 with nearly a 4,000 vote majority on a 69% turnout, totalling 46% of the vote. Furthermore, of Eastleigh’s 44 Councillors, 40 are Liberal Democrat and 4 were Conservative.
Next let’s remember the time and tested rule of British politics:
During the mid-term of an unpopular government the governing party will always do worse than in a General Election. Except in Eastleigh the only two major parties were both in government.
So in summary:
The party with the overwhelming local support base won the election. The only other major party who could have taken votes was also in government and therefore took a relatively equal share of the blame. Recognising then that the Labour party only took 9% in 2010 and actually received 1,000 less votes in 2013 than in 2010 made it almost certain that the only party who would benefit from the so-called “Protest vote” had to be UKIP, who duly did benefit (albeit better than was initially expected).
The key therefore from Eastleigh is to recognise the message of a “No change” vote rather than look for changes to provide that meaning. What the Eastleigh by-election did, which has been poorly reported, is to show that the UK public do not see any significant differences in the 3 main parties and they do not think that their votes can make a real difference.
Since 1997 the UK general election voter turnout has never passed the 70% mark that had always existed before the creation of “New Labour”. In Eastleigh this was the real story. Nearly every major UK politician and news outlet canvassed the public incessantly for weeks and yet at vote time the turnout was 52.7%. 52.7% of people in the middle of a parliament, with all the media coverage, attention and with a Lib Dem cabinet seat up for grabs decided to vote. 47.3% didn’t even bother. In fact in 3 years the number of registered voters in Eastleigh who felt their vote could make a difference fell from 69.3% to 52.7%.
In short Eastleigh is not a Lib Dem win, a Tory disappointment, a UKIP breakthrough or a Labour set back. What Eastleigh does show us is a warning. A warning that the UK electorate do not see a difference in voting. They do not see a party or group with ideas they will vote for and they are not happy with any of the offers they are being presented with. In short Eastleigh was a vote for the status quo (in light of any alternatives).
If Eastleigh told us anything then surely Eastleigh’s message was: Go back to the drawing board and come back with something different. The challenge is to the parties in Westminster now is how to do that.