I’m not sure why anyone expected any different. All the polling from Eastleigh is at least consistent on one point: Labour has only a minuscule hope of winning. The latest poll from Lord Ashcroft this week showed Labour at 12%; an earlier one by Survation showed Labour at 13%. This isn’t much of an improvement over Labour’s vote of 10% in 2010.
Since we need to make serious inroads into areas like Eastleigh in 2015, does this mean Labour is doomed? No.
Take a closer look at the polling and something else stands out. Voters were asked by Survation (table 7) what most attracted them to a choice (including party leader, candidate themselves etc): the percentage who said they were voting tactically to ‘stop another candidate’ was significantly higher for LibDems (22.6%) than Labour (11.7%) and the Conservatives (5.7%). Admittedly, this isn’t a pointed question directly about tactical voting but it does say something about the by-election.
There is indeed a deeper reservoir of support Labour can tap into now, post-2010. But many Lib Dem voters in Eastleigh still think Labour has a low chance of winning, and voting for them could hand Maria Hutchings a victory.
John O’Farrell seems to be a great candidate and Labour have no doubt used this by-election to build a more solid foundation for the future.
I think it was a mistake to raise expectations for Eastleigh. Of course, many on the right will say it is a disaster for Ed Miliband even if the party won the seat outright.
But the low polling says something else, I think, about Lib Dem voters. Many thought a large proportion of them would move to Labour en masse. But this seems to misunderstand their motivations: in areas like Eastleigh the ex-LibDem vote is still more anti-Tory than it is pro-Labour. So they seem to be sticking with the candidate they think has the most chance of stopping Hutchings.
There is one major lesson for Labour here for 2015: appealing to ex-Lib Dem voters will take a lot more than just comparing the party to the Conservatives and pointing to the last three years. The party needs a more positive agenda and it has not quite banked that constituency – despite the last three years.