I know nothing about Eastleigh. Not been, not knocked on a few dozen doors and recieved the usual fantastic reception. Not roused a few reluctant punters in a shopping centre for a vox pop. Not even sat in Labour HQ and phoned up people on a pre-printed list, using my usual fake name1.
So I’ve not got a clue what’ll happen today.
I do know a bit about politicians and the press though, and that means I know a bit about how they’ll react.
Much of the analysis of tonight will focus on the order of the parties, who wins or loses, who comes third or fourth.
I won’t care much about that, other than on how it’ll affect the mood of the parties themselves. I think this will be: Conservative: Triumph or blind panic, LibDem: Triumph or Stoical acceptance, UKIP: Triumph or triumph, Labour: indifference, with undercurrent of worry.
My general rule about by-elections is as follows: As signs of voter intent, they don’t usually really tell you very very much specifically, and when they do tell you something, it’s usually about the trend, not the result.
As a signal to your own party and to the media class, however, they are often very, very important, even though the actual reasons for a victory or defeat have little or nothing to do with how that victory or defeat is interpreted.
It is this latter factor that means that Political parties have to throw endless resources at by-elections. They might not matter very much, but it’s essential to do all you can to keep it that way.
Essentially, I agree with Anthony Wells’s post yesterday, arguing that Eastleigh will tell us little about anything important, but adding the rider that it will still have great weight put upon it, and therefore become very important indeed for party managers.
There have been a few practical examples of this.
The most famous is perhaps the 1922 Newport by-election, which being a victory for an anti-Coalition Conservative candidate which the pro-Coalition Conservative leadership did not expect, may have helped trigger the end of the Lloyd-George coalition, even though none of the candidates supported the coalition, and the main issue seems to have been licsensing laws, with the Tory as the pro-pubs being open on a Sunday candidate. Equally, in Eastleigh, the local issue seems to have been housing development, and all parties seem to be for that nationally, against it locally.
There’s also the 1983 Darlington by-election, which helped ensure that Michael Foot stayed on as Party leader. There’s a good account of the by-election by Steve Richards (requires realplayer). Labour won, and the SDP did badly, with Tony Cook perhaps getting a media similar treatment as various Labour by-election candidates from media (Peter Tatchell, Deidre Wood).
Accepting victory, Labour’s Ossie O’Brien declared it a turning point for Labour.
It wasn’t, and he lost the seat three months later.2 Labour did temporarily jump in the polls, from the high twenties to the mid thirties, while SDP momentum dissipated, but in the election campaign, Labour slumped again.
It’s suggested that the Darlington victory prevented a coup against Foot’s leadership. Personally, I think such an attempt was unlikely, depite the undoubted talk. Labour were already on the floor, and further division would have probably handed support to the SDP/Liberals.
The truth was that Labour had made its electoral bed many months before. Darlington just gave Labour a brief, false, hope as it headed towards defeat. Perhaps the real story of the Darlington by-election was the solidity of the Conservative vote, even though they failed to win the seat.
So in Eastleigh, the general direction of the voters, rather than the result, will be quite interesting.
I’ll personally be interested in the solidity of the vote for the Coalition parties, the size of the “anti-politics” vote, and whether Labour makes up significant ground.3
Who wins, who loses, on the other hand is probably much less important.
So it goes.
- you really don’t want to introduce yourself as “Hopi Sen” when phone canvassing total strangers in a seat. It confuses people [↩]
- If the LibDems win today, they should pause at that thought! [↩]
- as it did in Eastleigh in 1994, Perth and Kinross in 1995 and Littleborough and Saddleworth in 1995, but did not do in Eastbourne in 1990 or Ribble Valley in 1991. [↩]