In recent years, the Eastleigh constituency hasn’t been particularly lucky in its chosen MPs.
There was a good solid start with the long-standing David Price, who occupied the seat from 1955 (when the constituency was first drawn) to his retirement in 1992. Price was an Old Etonian, a Roman Catholic (though not aggressively so), who had a “good war” with the Scots Guards. He was an educated man (Trinity, Cambridge, and Yale), economically literate, with a decent record in industry and in Europe.
Price’s successor was another mild and moderate Tory, Stephen Milligan, who had been a journalist of distinction at The Economist, BBC Radio 4, and The Sunday Times (that last under Andrew Neil’s editorship). He ratted from the Tories into the fledgeling SDP and then re-ratted back to the Tories when Thatcherism had passed its painful peak. Milligan inherited a sound majority in Eastleigh, and was shacked up with Julie Kirkbride (then a journo with the Telegraph, later the Tory MP for Bromsgrove, until the expenses scandal outed her).
Bringing the house down
In 1993 John Major attempted to reboot from Black Wednesday with a relaunch of the stuttering Tory Government to focus on moral values: this was the catastrophic “Back to Basics” campaign.
No sooner spouted, than a whole succession of moral disasters befell individual Tory figures. One of the more sensational was the death of Stephen Milligan, self-asphyxiated, in drag, with an orange in his mouth.
The death prompted a by-election, a heavy swing (sorry!) against the Tories and pushing them into third place, and a LibDem, David Chidgey, in the Eastleigh seat. Chidgey retained the seat — but only just — in 1997, and was building a decent majority of 4,000+ in 2001. Hitting his mid-60s, Chigey was inveigled into the Lords so Chris Huhne could inherit the seat.
The Tories went for Huhne in 2005, cutting his LibDem majority down to just 568. Arguably what saved Huhne were 1,669 votes for UKIP — perhaps a sign of things to come.
By 2010 Huhne was a significant national figure: he stood for, and lost the LibDem parliamentary party leadership in 2006 and 2007, while providing much of the thinking for LibDem policy making. In the 2010 Election, Eastleigh was a prime Tory target again, number eleven across the country, and heavily underwritten by Ashcroft money. The LibDem upsurge held for Huhne, who came back with a useful, but not comfortable, majority of 3,864, largely on the back of “borrowed” Labour votes, tactically voting to keep the Tory out.
A dodgy driver
Huhne is now in the hot-seat, thanks to a mucky marriage break-up, which lead to his estranged wife blowing the gaff over penalty points she had taken on her licence, to save Huhne being banned. After considerable to-ing, fro-ing, shuffling and informed and inspired newspaper “leaks”, Huhne and his wife were charged with perverting the course of justice. Huhne finally resigned. The case is due to be heard this autumn.
If Huhne goes down, then we are up for another by-election. So let’s have a shifty at Guido Fawkes, reading runes from the Eastleigh News, and picking over Nigel Farage being “on manoeuvres” in Eastleigh. Farage has form: he was the UKIP candidate in that previous by-election in 1994.
The pertinent point Fawkes makes is:
If LibDem polling figures remain where they are, it will be the Tories’ to lose, but there are also 10,000 Labour votes up for grabs. With a decent tactical campaign UKIP could easily pick up significantly more than the 3,000 votes they secured in 2010. And not just from from disillusioned Tories…
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However one looks at that, at least a fifth, up to even a third of the electors are tending to Labour — that 2010 result, as noted above, must be tactical anti-Tory voting. After the coalition experience, those votes are highly likely to go home.
The anti-Tory ethos is manifest at local level: the 2012 borough election returned 40 LibDems and just 4 Tories. What is also interesting about those figures at Ward level is that UKIP were by no means disgraced in any of the last three years, relatively outpolling any General Election performance by a factor of at least three.
There is no substantial student vote — the 2001 Census showed just 2.1% — and a tiny ethnic minority; but there is a “grey ” vote of some 18-19% and a large youth vote. Played properly, and with a good and recognisable candidate, there are Labour votes to be had.
So, to surmise about a by-election:
- we can assume the LibDem vote might suffer badly: on the basis of what hit the Tories in ’94, a 25% drop in vote-share is quite possible. Were it to be just 10-15%, a LibDem is still down to the mid-thirties in percentage terms.
- this is a “middle-middle” class constituency, with legacies of the old railway town. It needs the Labour vote to be dynamized and turned out. If anything like the 1997 figure of 35% could be delivered, there’s all to play for.
- the Tory vote is fragile. It hit 39% in 2010, having built at 1-2% each outing after the ’94 by-election. We can read, on national polling, that the Tory vote across the country in 6-8% down on 2010. Were that to be the case in Eastleigh, we are coating in the lower thirty-odd percents.
- UKIP have never performed in parliamentaries above the 3.4-3.6% mark. We might easily assume that could double or treble in a contentious by-election. Those votes are likely to come disproportionately from disaffected Tories, but with a substantial ex-Labour (and weirdo LibDem) base.
- We can assume there would be a Green name on the ballot. That, too, could be a repository for the LibDem disillusioned.
Bottom line: in the early ’90s, this one had the makings of a three-way marginal. So far the LibDems have banked the anti-Tory vote.