Labour has nothing to lose in Eastleigh and should throw the kitchen sink at it

February 5, 2013 12:19 pm

Eastleigh wouldn’t be at the top of my list of seats where I’d be pleased by the prospect of a by-election.

As Mark Ferguson correctly notes, “The seat would be 258th on Labour’s target seat list for 2015. Or to put it another way, if Labour won Eastleigh at a general election, the party would be looking at a 362 seat majority.”

The raw results from 2010 indeed look very unpromising:

Liberal Democrat 24,966 (46.5%, +8.2)
Conservative 21,102 (39.3%, +2.1)
Labour 5,153 (9.6%, −11.5)
UKIP 1,933 (3.6%, +0.2)
English Democrats 249 (0.5%, +0.5)
Independent 154 (0.3%, +0.3)
National Liberal Party – Third Way 93 (0.2%, +0.2)

At local government level the Lib Dems monopolise representation.

All this adds up to a seat where in normal times Labour would shrug its shoulders, run a low key campaign and let the Tories and Lib Dems slug it out. There may even be some in our party who want us to go easy on the Lib Dems, foolishly thinking that a soft-touch approach to a by-election in a Lib Dem seat might make them more friendly towards us in future coalition negotiations.

But these are not normal times and I would argue we should go into this one believing that literally anything could happen, from a Labour vote squeezed below its 2010 level to a fluke win on a 4-way split. I genuinely think that the order in which Labour, the Lib Dems, the Tories and UKIP finish could be any permutation of those four in 1st, 2nd, 3rd or 4th.

Here’s why:

  • Until 2010 there was a solid Labour core vote in this constituency that was resistant to Lib Dem squeeze messages. Our percentage share of the vote was as follows:

1992 – 20.7%
1994 by-election – 27.6%
1997 – 26.8%
2001 – 21.9%
2005 – 20.6%

  • Labour consistently polled 10-15,000 votes in each of five elections, then lost half of that in 2010.
  • There were boundary changes that moved good Labour wards out of the constituency during its history, but it isn’t these that caused the halving of Labour’s vote in 2010. The boundary changes between 2005 and 2010 actually helped Labour, increasing Labour’s notional vote share (the vote it would have got in 2005 on the new boundaries) to 21.1%.
  • So we know that the collapse in Labour’s vote in 2010 was political – caused by a squeeze message from Chris Huhne to get Labour supporters to vote tactically, and by our national unpopularity.
  • Since then our national popularity has gone up by about 11% from 29% to 40%.
  • Generally, Labour supporters are far less willing than in 2010 to tactically lend votes to the Lib Dems as they now know that the Lib Dems are happy to form coalitions with the Tories and vote for austerity and regressive policies.
  • We didn’t put resources into this seat in 2010. We have nowhere else to put resources other than this by-election as it is a stand-alone fight.
  • Even though we don’t have loads of money to put into this election, it is an easy place geographically for activists to reach, on a fast train line from London, and near to some very active CLPs in Southampton and other parts of Hampshire.
  • The Eastleigh Lib Dems don’t have Chris Huhne as candidate. In 2010 he had a big personal vote, was able to leverage his incumbency as an active sitting MP, and as a Lib Dem who portrayed himself as a progressive, had a particular appeal to tactical voters.
  • The circumstances of Mr Huhne’s resignation don’t exactly help the Lib Dems.
  • UKIP were not a big factor in 2010 in this seat. They could be in the by-election, particularly if they have a high-profile candidate, and will disproportionately take votes off the Tories. This reduces the argument that a Labour vote might let the Tories in – their vote is going to be going down not up.

So if Labour can get the same kind of recovery it has had nationally, it will get to about 20%. This in itself would be a triumph compared to 2010.

If UKIP also make a break-through we could see a scenario where all four parties are on between 20% and 30% and the winner sneaks through on 26-28%. That is reachable for us with the right candidate and campaign.

If we don’t try, our fatalism will be a self-fulfilling prophesy. People will see we are out of the game and instead opt for one of the parties that looks like it wants to and can win.

I think it is politically imperative that we have a good shot at this one:

  • We’ve had a bunch of good by-election results but, with the exception of Corby, they have all been in places where the media can discount it as our core vote holding up or coming home. An opportunity has come up for us to demonstrate what is happening in the “deep south” where many would like to write us off.
  • One or other of the coalition parties has to lose. They can’t both win so this election will either damage the Tories or the Lib Dems. It might even damage both if we recover and UKIP does well. In contrast we have nothing to lose as we are starting from such a low base. A Lib Dem loss would be serious – the first Liberal or Lib Dem seat they have lost in a by-election since 1957. A Tory failure to take a target marginal off the Lib Dems in these circumstances shows they are not in the game for a winning a majority in 2015.
  • We need to prove there are no no-go areas for Labour. If Ed’s “One Nation” message is to work, we have to get credible Labour results – not necessarily wins, but traction in our direction – in places like Hampshire.
  • If we do well here it helps us argue that a Labour vote is not a wasted vote in lots of the rural shire county councils which go to the polls this May.

Here’s what I’d do:

  • We need to frame this relentlessly as a referendum – for or against the Government’s (both Lib Dems’ and Tories’) economic strategy.
  • Keep the message brutal, simple, and repetitive. Focus it on the Lib Dem vote as it is soft, disgruntled, and a large slice of it in Eastleigh consists of people who are Labourites voting tactically. I would boil it down to:
  • Your last MP let you down badly and embarrassed Eastleigh. The Lib Dems should pay a price for that.
  • The Tories and Lib Dems are equally to blame for the cuts and for choking off any economic recovery. They should both pay a price for that. The Lib Dems basically stole the votes of progressive voters, especially those who voted tactically.
  • We need to move fast to select a candidate, preferably with a Hampshire background (there are plenty of great CLPs in the county) but even more importantly an energetic campaigner.
  • We don’t have lots of cash so let’s do lots of simple, black and white leaflets with simple, hard-hitting messages. We are already paying the salaries of party staff so other than accommodation there is no marginal cost to seconding as many as possible of them to Eastleigh for the duration.
  • We need to systematically co-ordinate a huge volunteer effort, particularly transport for activists from London and the rest of the South East. People are up for the fight and if it is organised well they will travel, particularly as there are no elections in London this year.
  • Every time that army of volunteers canvasses someone who identifies as Labour we need to repeat and repeat and repeat to that voter that we can win, that the Lib Dems are the Tories’ allies, that we don’t under any circumstances want them to vote tactically.
  • We can use demographic data and local research to target and motivate to vote people who are directly affected by the cuts.

If we do all that, we could get a very interesting result.

  • David Walsh

    Worth seeing what John Braggins (a National Organiser who fought the last by-election in Eastleigh when Stephen Milligan died) had to say on Labour Uncut. After all, he has been there and got the T shirt…….
    http://labour-uncut.co.uk/2013/02/05/beastly-eastleigh/

  • John Ruddy

    Goodness me – a post by Luke Akehurst that Alan Giles can agree with! The world is about to end!
    By the way, I agree to. Nothing to lose, and a strong showing (even if we dont win) will show us as being in contention in the south.

    • AlanGiles

      Yes, I genuinely do agree.

      I think sometimes you have to forget the statistics and look at special cases. This really is a special case, in that you have a deeply unpopular government, and due to the LibDems meekly going along with most of the Tory ideas, the hard times are also hitting the better off now, and the residents of Eastleigh will be no exception.

      You also have to remember that their current MP has shown himself to be a persistent liar for a decade, and even with the knowledge that he had committed a crime, 2 years later not only became their MP, but shortly after that attempted (twice) to become their party leader. If he had been successful, LibDems would have faced the embarrassment of being the only party leader ever to face a term of imprisonment.

      To compound all this, it seems that he made at least two attempts, through his council to have the case dismissed, and, until Sunday appears to have been prepared to continue to tell lies, on oath, by pleading Not Guilty. I think one has to assume that it was the damning text messages from his younger son that made his lawyers show him that it was a lost cause.

      If you get a candidate whose character is beyond reproach, you might well find that LD supporters will vote for him or her, to show their disgust at the dishonesty of Mr Huhne. Rightly or wrongly human nature seeks to punish the party just as much as the politician, in such cases.

      LA says exactly what I did earlier in that these days in politics, anything is possible. These are strange times. If they are honest, did Labour really expect to lose Bradford West last year?. No, and because you can be taken unawares in a negative way, that is not to say you can’t be taken unawares in a positive way.

      But you have to go in believing you can win – no point in half heartedly going for it with a shrug of the shoulders.

      Of course Labour will not win a 362 seat majority (nor will anyone else) but these freak votes do come up from time to time, and I think this is a case in point. Also of course, you have virtually two Conservative parties, the original, and those who want to punish the originals for gay marriage etc, and will do so by voting for UKIP, so the right vote will be undeniably split. If there are not too many independents standing, I see no reason why Labour can’t take advantage in this situation (I haven’t yet decided if I will stand in Eastleigh as the “Independent Reinstate Alexandr The Meerkat Immediately” candidate :-)

  • NT86

    I don’t agree with Luke Akehurst on much, but this is precisely what I believe about Eastleigh. The Lib Dem argument that voting Labour would allow a Tory in cannot work so much now. Factoring in the impact of UKIP in 2013 cannot be written off as that’s a pressure on the Tory vote.

    If this idea of one nation Labour is to have any teeth, there has to be more confidence in campaigning in non-traditional southern seats. Might as well start somewhere. If Labour can double their vote share in this by election, it’ll be a good result IMO.

  • i_bid

    As well as hammering home the message leftists shouldn’t tactically vote, it should be strenuously argued that there is nothing in the voter’s interest to vote tactically either. Unlike general elections they won’t be helping Labour/stopping Tories from governing, the government’s already formed and a lost seat couldn’t effect that – and the only way you can ensure the government loses the seat is to not vote Liberal anyway. It would also set Labour up nicely for further elections if they managed to surpass the Liberals and become the anti-Tory vehicle, stopping the necessity for them to vote tactically.

  • http://twitter.com/AndyJSajs AndyJS

    It’s target number 337 for Labour because Labour are in third place and have to overtake the Conservatives as well as the LDs.

  • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=100001102865655 John Ruddy

    I think Luke has talked himself into the post of campaign manager for the bye-election!

  • labourmatters

    I can not say how much I agree with this article. Like Luke, I have experience of fighting Lib Dems and the only way is to out gun them in terms of leaflets and voter contact.

    The only addition I would make to Luke’s article is that we should also utilise the virtual phone bank. I’m too ill to travel, but I can phone from home. I’m sure there are others willing to use their own ‘free’ minutes too.

    Lib Dems are like underwear stains; unpleasant and difficult to shift. However we have to shift a few of them to win our 106 target seats, some with double-digit swings being required. It will do us no harm at all to fight Eastleigh to win, despite knowing that we won’t.

  • http://www.facebook.com/people/Mike-Homfray/510980099 Mike Homfray

    Totally in agreement. Pity you’re not from Hampshire as you would make a good candidate but I agree. Let’s pick someone local.

  • http://www.facebook.com/andy.mccormick2 Andy McCormick

    I completely agree with you Luke, Labour needs a 19% swing against the Lib Dems to win Eastleigh and go from 3rd to 1st. But in other parts of Hampshire e.g. Basingstoke they’ve achieved similar swings in council seats, leapfrogging Lib Dems to win. And there is a very large Labour activist base in Southampton that managed to get out over 8,000 votes in the super-low-turnout PCC elections in November. Coalition candidate A vs Coalition candidate B is hardly an inspiring choice for voters in a by-Election, especially those under 30 who have been hit really hard by the Coalition policies.

  • Redshift1

    I don’t disagree with a lot of this BUT we simply cannot afford to drag staff members (other than South East and London ones) away from other regions at the moment.

  • http://www.facebook.com/roger.luffman Roger Luffman

    What we MUST ensure is that we do not lose votes to UKIP, and get back votes which went to the LDs in 2010. The way to do this in my opinion is to take them on and make a committment NOW that within 6 months of the next General Election a majority Labour Government will call a binding IN/OUT referendum on EU membership. Silences the Daily Express and Cameron at a stroke, and completely destroys UKIPs reason for existing!

  • Bob

    Completely agree Luke – we should absolutely go for it.
    We’ve ceded too much ground to the LibDems, particularly along the South Coast and it’s about time we try and take it back!
    I hope Labour HQ are reading this.

  • http://twitter.com/jackjoh01219520 jack johnson

    In 1990 I won a Tory council ward in Surrey by motivating the apathetic Labour vote
    and held it for 10 years.My philosophy was’ no no go areas for Labour’ Luke is right.

  • http://www.facebook.com/timmymc Tim McLoughlin

    Agreed. After two decades of having our votes stolen by the Lib Dems it is time to start taking those back.

    • http://twitter.com/beccaet Rebecca Taylor

      I didn’t realise the Labour Party owned people’s votes. I thought we lived in a democracy where people were free to decide how to cast their ballot.

  • http://twitter.com/JimmyHSands Jimmy Sands

    We won’t win but we need to ensure we don’t risk the morale blow that could come from a lost deposit or fourth place. We knew we wouldn’t win in 1994 (on more favourable boundaries than now) but we still put in the effort and were rewarded with second place. A poor showing will call our ability to fight back in the south into question.

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