By-elections are an important feature of British politics and a few have had a significant impact on national politics. Whether Eastleigh falls into that category only time will tell. But it was a significant election called in the wake of Chris Huhne’s admission (finally) that he had perverted the course of justice and during the changing ramifications of the ‘sex scandal’ in the Liberal Democratic Party and six days after Britain lost its AAA credit rating. That the Liberal Democrats retained the seat, albeit with a significantly reduced majority was a victory ‘against the odds’ but hardly ‘stunning’ as Nick Clegg maintains when there was a 19.3 per cent swing to UKIP and its share of the vote fell by 14 per cent since the 2010 general election. For the Conservatives this was fair more than the ‘disappointing’ result, David Cameron’s verdict, it was a humiliating defeat in a constituency that it must win in a general election to secure a majority government. As for Labour, yes Eastleigh is its 258th target seat and it has never come close to winning it, but it failed to extend its appeal beyond its core voters despite the current unpopularity of the government. Yes, it will say that the anti-government vote went to UKIP but that neglects the point that Ed Milliband’s One Nation Labour made no inroads in a southern English seat.
The real winner at Eastleigh was UKIP. Although it came second, it was, according to some commentators, a victory in all but name. Let’s be clear, Eastleigh may have been their best by-election result but they did not win. However, what the result demonstrates is that UKIP’s stance on issues such as EU migration resonates with the public and that David Cameron’s offer of a referendum on Europe did not benefit the Conservatives at all. The problem for the Conservatives (and incidentally Labour) is that they have promised referendums in the past and then reneged on the deal and that the public, when faced by a political establishment that is pro-Europe in its attitudes, vote UKIP not as a protest vote against that establishment but out of frustration at the failure of that establishment to give the people the referendum they want because they think they might/will lose. All the major political parties are divided over Europe though there is an unbridgeable chasm at the heart of Conservatism that has poisoned its electoral prospects for the past two decades. They have not won a general election since 1992, whatever the party rhetoric about 2010, an election that Labour lost rather than the Conservative won. What the public recognise and the Conservative leadership does not is that re-negotiating our position in the EU is effectively a non-starter—why should a Europe of 26 countries negotiate with the twenty-seventh? David Cameron’s dilemma is that he supports the EU if it acts in Britain’s interests while those in Brussels look at issues from a Europe-wide perspective. The public pragmatically takes the view that we will never get what we want through negotiation and that, as a country, we need to decide whether we want to be in the EU or not. UKIP recognise this and this helps to explain why their candidate did so well in Eastleigh.
The difficulty for the political establishment, a point well made on Question Time last night, is that it sits in the ‘Westminster bubble’ and is not only completely out of touch with the concerns and fears of the general public but appears indifferent to them. That’s the message from the by-election and explains why UKIP did so well and the other parties so badly.