Feeling flat after Eastleigh

Luke Akehurst

It’s difficult as a Labour supporter not to feel a little bit flat after the Eastleigh result.

Strategically it was great for us in terms of the impact on the other parties. The Lib Dems seem to be in with a shout of holding some of the seats the Tories need to take from them in order to form a majority. And UKIP have destabilised the Tories, undermined Cameron’s leadership and caused a strategic dilemma for him – he has voters he needs to attract back on both his left and right flanks and it will be difficult to simultaneously win both as they want different policies.

Eastleigh probably makes it more likely that we are in with a shout of an overall majority in 2015, or at the very least that the Tories are out of the running for an overall majority of their own.

So why the flat mood?

Because our 4th place and 9.8% of the vote were exactly that – 4th place and 9.8% of the vote.

I should say that I stand by my recommendation at the start of the campaign about throwing the kitchen sink at it.

If we hadn’t have given it a good go, with an energetic ground campaign and a great candidate in John O’Farrell, we might have not got 9.8% but instead been squeezed down to the 2.7% we got in Christchurch in 1993, the 2.0% we got in Newbury the same year, the 1.7% we got in Winchester in 1997, or the 3.7% we got in Romsey in 2000.

All these by-elections were won by the Lib Dems and were in the same or neighbouring counties to Eastleigh and none affected our ability to win the subsequent 1997 and 2001 General Elections.

So in comparative terms we actually managed to resist the formidable Lib Dem “squeeze” – the flood of targeted letters and Focus leaflets aimed at encouraging tactical voting. Anyone who has not been on the receiving end of a Lib Dem by-election machine will have no idea it was possible for a political party to print and deliver such a volume of leaflets with such rapidity or such single-minded messaging – every single one of them says it is a two horse race and the party being squeezed can’t win here.

I don’t know about the recent allegations about Lord Rennard’s personal behaviour, but his political morality as the guy who perfected the technique of winning elections without any positive message or attributes as a party at all and purely by tactically squeezing the third placed party is certainly questionable.

We know this squeeze worked because Lord Ashcroft’s exit poll says that 23% of the Labour voters we had in Eastleigh in 2010 voted Lib Dem this time. They can’t have shifted because they had a more positive view of the Lib Dems now than at the height of Cleggmania, it’s the tactical squeeze that did it. That’s aside from potential defectors from the Lib Dems who were dissuaded from doing so for tactical reasons.

We also know from our canvassers that there were many more people in Eastleigh who identified with Labour and wanted to vote for us than felt they could in the end – because they bought into the idea that we were a wasted vote. And the more that happens, the more it becomes a self-fulfilling prophesy.

It’s astonishing that the Lib Dem appeal to vote tactically against the Tories still works after they have been in power with the Tories for three years.

But it does and that suggests there is a powerful section of the electorate who are basically anti-Tory and will back the party that can claim most credibly it is best placed to beat them. Luckily in most places that is us. But there are some bits of the South and South West where it is still happening.

I find this morally problematic on two levels. If we aspire to form a government and be a national party it isn’t good to achieve this with a polarised country where there are entire counties where we are lucky to get 10% of the vote. That’s as bad as when the Tories have governed with no mandate from Scotland, Wales or the big cities. Nor do I want people like the people I grew up with in Kent, who identify with Labour and want to vote for us, to feel we are not a realistic option at the ballot box.

Oddly UKIP were able to resist this squeeze and surge through to second place. Despite starting from a weaker place than Labour, without our history of OK-ish performances in Eastleigh, people who went for UKIP didn’t have the same sense that this was a wasted vote.

This worries me because it suggests that despite the unpopularity of the government we are not the natural repository for protest votes against it in every part of the country. And we have a problem if people’s self-perception of how right-wing an economically mixed area of the South like Eastleigh is is such that they think UKIP can win but Labour can’t.

As John Denham has written, Southern voters aren’t culturally, economically or politically a totally different breed to the rest of the country. In the bits of the South where strong Labour parties have been consistently maintained, such as Reading, Swindon, Southampton, Hastings, even the little garrison town of Aldershot where I stood in 2001, Labour holds its own. The problem in Eastleigh was that our attempt to graft on a ground presence in just three weeks was too late. The Lib Dems’ local machine has worked the area to death for two decades. They already had a full set of canvass data and a leaflet written for every day of the campaign before we even selected a candidate.

Rebuilding a Labour presence across the South so that we get all the votes we deserve and don’t lose them to pernicious calls for tactical voting isn’t essential to winning the General Election so I don’t expect the national Party to prioritise it. They have to focus on our 106 key marginals.

But it is a moral imperative that voting Labour should never be seen as a wasted vote and that we should be a vibrant, visible campaigning force in every community and constituency.

My lesson from Eastleigh is that unofficial mutual and self-help to build up CLPs and spread campaigning best practice in the South for the long-term, which initiatives like Third Place First, Southern Front and Movement for Change are leading is more important than ever.

We can’t afford to have any no-go areas if we are serious about One Nation Labour.

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