Friday, 1 March 2013

The Miracle of Eastleigh

That was a long night, I fell asleep before the declaration in Eastleigh, maybe because twitter has robbed election nights of the drama of the count. 

But if you awaken groggy, just think of David Cameron who gets up this morning with a 12 star, continent-sized headache called Europe.

For nervous Conservative MPs eyeing their own slim majorities, the sight of the party beaten into a humiliating third place by UKIP amounts to an earthquake in England. 

Cameron's promise of an EU referendum in the distant future was not enough to slay the anti-European dragon, the fears over immigration and the growing discontent over economic stagnation.

Tory backbenchers will want a radical prescription in George Osborne's budget, the next political set piece of the season. But with Cameron ten points adrift of Labour a lurch to the right to medicine for winning an election?

With UKIP "coming up on the rails" all the way through the campaign, as its colourful leader Nigel Farage always claimed, then we may have a new vessel of protest. Farage is no Bippo Grillo, the comedian who snatched millions of votes in the Italian elections. But for anti-politics voters, wishing to curse mainstream parties as "all the same", he will do.

A few years ago that would have been a good place for the SNP to be in Scotland, but they are a party of government now and can only play anti-politics, decrying everything in the current set up, on the independence issue.

For the Liberal Democrats this has to go down as the Miracle of Eastleigh. 

They beat national polls that declare them dead and two scandals  - a bitter court case and an alleged cover up over sexual harassment claims -  that threatened to scupper Nick Clegg's leadership.

They also have the satisfaction of beating their coalition partners to a pulp, which is the Westminster equivalent of the nerds rising up against the school bully. Clegg can breath a sigh of relief, if only until more revelations come along in the Rennard affair this weekend.

Remember Eastleigh is a Lib Dem citadel with 36 councillors holding every seat in the area, backed in this titanic struggle by an army of volunteers from across the country. 

Not every Lib Dem seat can be so well fortified in a countrywide election. It would be foolish of the Lib Dems to read salvation into this Lazarus trick but survival looks possible in the light of Eastleigh's dawn. 

Wisdom is that if the Conservatives can't win in places like Eastleigh they cannot get a majority in the Commons. But by-elections do not write iron rules for general elections. The head to head fight between Tories and Labour in northern marginals is what will decide the next government of the UK. 

The warning for Labour, the tail end Charlies of the night,  is that although there are plenty voters unhappy about the coalition they are not convinced that  Ed Miliband and Ed Balls can do better in handling the economy.

The biggest issue in Eastleigh was not Europe, it was immigration, in a town with no visible ethnic minority and no great problem with racism. It is also an identified concern for the Scottish electorate but  Labour has not found the language of voters on this issue.

Concern over the cost of living for the "squeezed middle" and the "predatory capitalism" of the power companies worked for Miliband, eventually. He has his work cut out to deliver a clear alternative to a government that comes back to Westminster from Eastleigh as a vagabond Coalition.

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