By-elections are not necessarily the most exciting events to watch out for in politics. It is easy to dismiss their results as being protest votes rather than early predictions of what is in store for political parties at the big event; however, it is hard to ignore the results of last week’s by-election in Eastleigh. The Liberal Democrats ended up retaining the seat with 32 per cent of the votes and were surprisingly trailed by the United Kingdom Independence Party (UKIP) who snared 29 per cent of the votes and the Conservative Party and Labour limped into third and fourth place respectively.
There is still another two years to go before the British general election, but the British media are already stating that the results from Eastleigh indicate that the Tories have a very long and hard fight ahead of them. And the results of last week’s by-election are troubling for the Tories for a number of reasons.
Firstly, there’s the fact that the Lib Dems were able to retain this seat despite the fact that this by-election arose from the resignation of a Lib Dem MP caught up in a sex scandal, and Eastleigh was initially a seat that was predicted to go to the Tories in 2015. And while yes, the Lib Dems did lose 14 per cent of their vote compared to 2010, their resilience spells trouble for the Tories.
Not only could it rob the Tories of the majority that eluded them in 2010 (the Tories need to snatch twenty seats off the Lib Dems to reach a majority), but also it makes the possibility of a Labor/Lib coalition more real. And more troublingly for the Tories, it appears that the UKIP has been able to capitalise on David Cameron’s program of modernisation isolating traditional Tory support bases.
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The UKIP seems to have moved beyond continually pushing its isolationist platform on the EU and more towards traditional Tory policy areas such as immigration and its pressure on the public sector and employment. With Cameron being viewed as being “too soft on Europe and too cuddly on gays” (The Guardian‘s words, not mine) it seemed Nigel Farrage and the UKIP were able to pick up votes from disillusioned Tories.
Farrage even went as far as stating that traditional Tory voters in Eastleigh did not view Cameron as a Conservative and that’s why the Tories lost Eastleigh. Cameron now faces a dilemma that could potentially undo his work towards making “Cameronism” happen; does he dare take a sharp turn toward the right to woo lost Tory voters and abandon his program of modernisation?
As I wrote earlier this year, Cameron’s EU referendum pledge could easily be viewed as a rather cynical grab for votes from the UKIP support base, but to take a far greater step towards the UKIP’s policies would be seen as disingenuous. After all, one of Cameron’s strengths is his reputation for being a strong, decisive leader, and his focus throughout his time as Prime Minister has been on bringing the Conservatives closer to the Centre (or as one analyst put it, it would just make him look like Ed Miliband).
However, Cameron clearly underestimated the appeal of a party he once branded as being comprised of “loonies” . But at the same time, it is worth noting that an exit poll from Eastleigh recorded UKIP voters as being driven not by policy but rather anger and disillusion with the British political system at large. The fact remains that the relief felt by the Lib Dems and elation of the UKIP is momentary in the grand scheme of things.
But what can be taken away from the Eastleigh by-election is a greater sense of disillusion with the British political system as well as a reminder that disillusioned Tories and Labour voters have other alternatives and are not afraid to vote for them. Britain’s three major parties have their work cut out for them if they want that majority government in 2015.