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Thursday, February 21, 2013 

Eastleigh? Beastly, more like.

It's a miserable, bitterly cold half-term week in February.  There's almost no hard news, except for the Oscar Pistorius bail hearing, which is in the usual style enabling those who know nothing about anything to definitively claim he's either guilty/innocent (although it is great to see that once again the British justice system has convicted three men of conspiring to carry out terrorist attacks when their plans to make explosives out of ammonium nitrate extracted from sports injury cold packs were impossible when said substance had been removed from the ingredients, and they also didn't have anyone other than themselves prepared to be suicide bombers), so it's hardly surprising that the likes of the Graun are trying to make something out of the Eastleigh by-electionMartin Kettle writes of Crosby and Greenwich, while a previous leader mentions the more recent Brent East and Crewe and Nantwich, somehow forgetting that by far the most surprising recent by-election win was George Galloway's in Bradford West, which only the paper's own Helen Pidd predicted.

Eastleigh is clearly not a Crosby, a Bermondsey, or even close to a Bradford.  There is no indication whatsoever that UKIP are in the running, and Labour's share of the vote in the constituency has been declining ever since 1997, John O'Farrell's candidacy seeming unlikely to change that.  The only real lines of interest are that it's the first straight by-election fight between the two coalition parties, and that the Tory candidate has a long record of putting her foot in it. Considering that a vote for either the Lib Dems or the Tories is effectively one in support of the continuation of the coalition, that Labour or UKIP aren't doing better is the real surprise.

Nonetheless, there are a few things to be drawn from how the contest has played out so far and seems likely to.  First, it suggests that the predictions of a Lib Dem wipeout come 2015 are way off. If ever there was going to be a contest where the incumbent party should lose, this ought to be it. Chris Huhne didn't just keep up a lie for 10 years, he's almost certainly going to prison as a result.  Rather than take advantage of this and do the sensible thing by choosing a moderate candidate more likely to appeal to former Huhne supporters, the Tories have stuck with Maria Hutchings, who seems to regard Nadine Dorries' career trajectory as something to aspire towards. Quite apart from her past remarks on asylum seekers and abortion, claiming that state schools aren't good enough for her 5-year-old cardio-respiratory surgeon son in waiting is just incredibly stupid, even if she wasn't talking about local schools as she claims.

Whether due to Hutchings or by design, the Tories are running a distinctly right-wing campaign, which seems more than a little misguided in Eastleigh.  Pretty much all they wanted to talk about the first week was immigration, implying that the Lynton Crosby strategy that worked so well for Michael Howard in 2005 is back in full effect. Never mind that such a gambit is only liable to work when you're not the ones currently failing to meet your pledge to reduce the numbers to tens of thousands, and that scaremongering about Bulgarians and Romanians only brings more attention to the lack of control over freedom of movement within the EU, the party seemed to think it was a potential winner.  While you shouldn't make sweeping national conclusions from by-elections, should the strategy fail in Eastleigh it might just make the party think twice before making it a major part of their campaign come 2015.

The campaign up to now also reinforces the fact that the Lib Dems' main worry in their marginals with the Tories is not voters going to the right, but how many are likely to defect to Labour or won't be able to bring themselves to vote tactically next time round.  With the by-election unlikely to affect the national picture, this isn't that big a concern right now, but it will be in just over two years' time. The ability of the party to convince waverers to stay with them is what will ultimately decide their and almost certainly Nick Clegg's fate.  Eastleigh won't on either score.

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