As the self-nominated applicants to be Labour’s candidate in Eastleigh prepare to be interviewed by Labour’s shortlisting panel, John O’Farrell, author of Things Can Only Get Better and script-writer on such tremendous TV political comedy as Spitting Image and Have I Got News for You, seems to be the favourite. Since we need a candidate who can make an immediate impact in a very short campaign, we could do much worse. He’s clearly a principled candidate and no careerist. But whoever is the candidate, things can only get better if Labour gives everything it has to this campaign. Labour doesn’t even have to win to make significant progress, but for the Tories and Lib Dems, winning isn’t necessarily enough. And these are eight reasons why we can do well:
- The normal squeeze suffered by Labour in Lib Dem /Tory contests is least likely to happen when they are both in government. Both Labour & UKIP are bound to gain on the 2010 result, and the most impressive candidate and credible campaign will gain most.
- Tactical voting in by-elections isn’t about who you want in government, but whether you want to punish the government. Many of those who voted both Tory and Lib Dem in 2010 have good reason to be unhappy.
- All Tory voters have good reason to be disaffected by either their local candidate, Maria Hutchings, or David Cameron on Europe, same-sex marriage and abortion since they’re on opposite sides.
- Even those Lib Dem voters who weren’t alienated by the Lib Dem volte face on tuition fees, Trident, the economy (or you name it) may well be alienated by Chris Huhne’s lies and alleged bullying and intimidation of his wife.
- Whilst UKIP have done badly in Eastleigh parliamentary elections (no more than 4%), they have been getting around 11% in recent local elections. They are therefore in a position to do some damage to the Tory vote.
- Labour on the other hand have polled reasonably well in what has had the characteristics of a safe Tory seat for half a century – polling over 40% in the 50s and 60s, more than the Lib Dems until the 80s, and beating the Tories into 3rd place in the 1994 by-election. Only at the last election did it dip to 10%. However, its local government performance has improved over the last 10 years even though the parliamentary performance was worsening suggesting that the potential Labour vote could still be rising if it wasn’t squeezed by tactical voting. Recently Labour has fought every council seat, winning 16% of the vote across the constituency in 2011/2.
- National opinion polls about tactical voting in by-elections such as last week’s YouGov poll (which the Lib Dems will use to try to squeeze Labour’s vote) are irrelevant to Eastleigh. Answers to such hypothetical questions inevitably reflect circumstances where respondents actually live and their own experience of tactical voting.
- By-elections can produce unexpected results and insurgent campaigns can win as we saw in Bradford. An effective Labour campaign targetting Eastleigh’s classic “squeezed middle” voters described by Andrew Rawnsley as “first – or second-generation home-owners feeling a painful decline in their living standards and worrying what the future holds for their children” could break though.