So what are we to make of last night’s Eastleigh result? The pervading wisdom is that this is a good night for the victorious Lib Dems, who staved off defeat and won with a reduced majority of 1,771 (4.26%), and a disaster for David Cameron as UKIP pushed the Tories into third place. Third behind an upstart party who no one knows what they stand for other than Europe and I suspect less cares will make for gloom at Tory HQ today.
Diane James (UKIP) polled 11,571 compared to the 10, 559 Maria Hutchings pulled in. UKIP were less than two thousands votes behind the Lib Dems 13,342. Undoubtedly an impressive performance although mostly for the bloody nose that it has given Cameron.
However, this is we have to remember a Lib Dem town. A place where they hold all 36 council seats. If they could not hold this seat they can hold nothing at all.
Is there any doubt that the UKIP result is anything but a right wing protest vote? While their support is undoubtedly growing it seems unlikely they have been transformed into the UK’s second biggest party.
What is clear is that it is something that Cameron will have to react quickly and shift to the right to steady the Tories who fear an approaching electoral cliff. If he can do that he can certainly claw back ground from UKIP, which on a national stage will struggle organisationally to pull off the kind of effort it put into Eastleigh.
In that light the Tories could have won the seat from the Lib Dems if they had been able to convince some of their natural voters not to switch to UKIP. Considering their candidate was anti Europe and anti gay marriage and they still failed suggests that the problems are deeper. It certainly had issues on the ground with getting its supporters out at some stages and it could not connect on the doorstep with its core voters.
For Nick Clegg the Eastleigh result is billed as a great relief in a terrible week as he has stumbled all over the place with the Lord Rennard story of sexual misconduct. That story has not gone away as one of the victims now speaks to police. His smugness is already being turned up a notch this morning. Clearly he thinks he can walk on water.
Maybe it is a relief, but I think people read too much into it if they take this as a sign that a future electoral wipe out has been completely averted. This is one seat in the Lib Dem heartland.
As Anthony Wells of UK Polling report notes: ”suffice to say, the result in Eastleigh does not show the Lib Dems retaining their support in their own seats (their drop in support was completely in line with national polling).
Labour’s celebrity candidate John O’Farrell, as expected finished fourth, on 4,088 votes. It is a disappointing result, but not entirely unexpected.
For Ed Miliband a paltry 4,000 plus votes is a poor night after the resources and effort that were put into Eastleigh.
That said as UK Polling Wells also notes the result for Labour “does not necessarily show Labour face problems in the south (it’s perfectly normal for a party with no hope of winning to see its support squeezed in a by-election)”.