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After Eastleigh: the LibDems

03/03/2013

After Eastleigh – TOC

1. The LibDems
2. UKIP
3. The Conservatives
4. Labour

It should have been the perfect storm: the LibDems have been the electoral whipping boys of UK politics from the moment the ink dried on the Coalition Agreement; their former MP – a two-time Leadership contender and one-time Cabinet Minister – was forced to resign in disgrace; the party became embroiled in a row over sexual harassment which saw Nick Clegg’s leadership (not so much his position this time as his actual ability to take control of the situation) and relationship with the truth called into question once again; and on paper, in Maria Hutchings they were up against a local opponent who had fought the seat before and whose views resonated with her activists. Defeat surely, surely, was a given.

And yet they won: the LibDems selected a local, well-established and respected candidate; activists poured into the constituency, augmented an already strong local structure (every single Borough Councillor in the Constituency is a Liberal Democrat). Mike Thornton reaped the reward of decades of effort in the seat.

But as I say with every By-Election, scratch the surface. The LibDem vote share fell by 14.5%: in line with the party’s least favourable opinion poll results. The party has lost more than 11,000 votes since 2010. And there was even a net swing, albeit a minuscule one of just 0.26%, from the LibDems to the Conservatives, whose result was judged to be a disaster.

The party’s local government base in Eastleigh survived the onslaught inflicted on it elsewhere. What if it hadn’t?

The party’s main opponent had been (or rather, was supposed to be) the LibDems’ equally unpopular partners in the Coalition. What if it had been another party?

The Tory campaign took on an increasingly shambolic air as time progressed. What if it hadn’t?

The rise of UKIP as a viable alternative meant that the opposition to the LibDems was seriously split. What if there had been only one clear, palatable challenger?

With UKIP suggesting that they won among those who voted on the day and it was the postal ballot that secured the LibDem victory, what if the writ for the By-Election had been moved just one week later?

Labour admitted that they’d had no base in the area for twenty years. What if they’d had some sort of organisation in place which could have appealed better to the LibDem left?

Six questions, and you can answer any of them the same way: the LibDems would have come second or even worse.

This was a first past the post election and the Liberal Democrats were first past the post. After two and a half years of agony, this is a much needed morale boost for the party, and might give them what they need to stage a recovery, or at the very least, stop the rot. But the result masks serious problems evidenced in the severe vote fall and the net swing to the Tories in an area of real LibDem strength with an opposition that the LibDems would have chosen themselves if they could have.

And here’s another point: what if, as is likely, the Tories decide that the best reaction to this result is to tack to the right, taking the ideological locus of the Coalition with them? Then, the LibDems will be faced with a tough choice: put up with it and move even further out of their political comfort zone, or don’t put up with it and end the Coalition. What will they do?

The LibDems will celebrate – and rightly so – this weekend. But they’re not out of the woods yet, and they may have even harder decisions to make in the coming weeks and months. The good news for the party is that its members get this: Caron has always been a good barometer of the LibDem take on events – not the party line as fed by the leadership, but the view of the activists and supporters – and she’s already looking at what Mike Thornton will be dealing with in the Commons, and the lessons the LibDems need to learn from Thursday. The party’s result and its reaction show that while things aren’t great for the Liberal Democrats, they might yet avoid the complete tonking that the rest of us have come to expect.

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