by John Braggins
The first polls are out for the Eastleigh by-election and they give the Tories a three point lead over the Lib Dems, or the Lib Dems a three point lead over the Tories – depending on which poll you believe or how you interpret them. I know from many years of campaigning that by elections have a special dynamic that means early polls often turn out to be deceptive.
Veteran Lib Dem campaign supremo, Lord Rennard, ennobled, it is said, for his services to the dark art of by-election campaigning, says the Labour vote is there to be squeezed in a “classic two-horse race.” Where have we heard this before? Well in every Lib Dem leaflet penned by Chris Rennard, at every by-election since the Liberals won Bermondsey in 1983.
In the past this was a largely successful ploy as the LibDems have always claimed they were neither Tories nor Labour and if you didn’t like one or the other, then you could vote for them. But that was the old politics and today things are very different – voters In Eastleigh can vote Labour precisely because they are not the Tories or the Lib Dems.
Now is time for Ed Miliband to step forward and show he has the vision and guts to pull-off an amazing by-election victory in this ex-railway town. And why not, all the components of an electoral bandwagon are in place.
Tory candidate Maria Hutchings begun her campaign being forced to deny quotes from the past and quarrelling with David Cameron on Europe, gay marriage and abortion.
In 2005 she was quoted as saying “With an increasing number of immigrants and asylum seekers then the pot is reduced for the rest of us, Mr Blair has got to stop focusing on issues around the world such as Afghanistan and AIDS in Africa and concentrate on the issues that affect the people of middle England.” Undoubtedly Ms Hutchings could turn into a liability – her presence in Westminster would certainly send a shiver down the spine of David Cameron.
And with a nasty Tory campaign, if the early comments by party chairman, Grant Shapps, are anything to go by, that will upset the many decent voters of Eastleigh.
The other coalition candidate, Lib Dem Mike Thornton, has been a parish and borough councillor since 2007, endorsed by Eastleigh Council leader over the weekend as “someone I’ve known for five years.” His job must to avoid any mention of the previous Lib Dem MP, his wife, press secretary and his lies to the police and his voters.
Andrew Rawnsley writing in Sunday’s Observer says “The typical Eastleigh voter will be first – or second-generation home-owners feeling a painful decline in their living standards and worrying what the future holds for their children. These are the classic “squeezed middle” voters whom all the parties identify as crucial. These are voters whom Labour must aspire to represent if it is serious about forming the next government.”
These are the people who will be casting a nervous eye on what Chancellor George Osborne has up his sleeve in his March budget. With polling day less than a month before the budget Eastleigh voters have a unique opportunity to send a message to Messrs Osborne and Cameron that their economic policies aren’t working and to endorse Labour’s one of jobs, economic growth and a return to the one-nation approach that has become the Ed Miliband mantra of late.
And so the bandwagon arrives on the doorsteps of Eastleigh. The question remains – is Labour capable of driving it or will someone else jump in the driving seat?
As Rawnsley says in the Observer: “A Labour win in Eastleigh seems hugely unlikely to most people today. Because it would be so unexpected, it would be a spectacular result for Ed Miliband and a shocking humiliation for both the coalition parties.”
So there we have it – if Labour campaigns hard on the doorsteps of Eastleigh, Bishopstoke, Fair Oak, West End and Hedge End – and demonstrates that it speaks and works for local communities; if Labour shows leadership and turns the campaign into a referendum on Osborne’s polices; if Labour exposes the divisions within the coalition partners; and if Labour presents its one-nation values clearly in all its communications, then the bandwagon will roll.
Every Labour activist should get themselves down to Eastleigh and help give that bandwagon a shove. After all this could be a classic three-horse race with only one rider wearing the colours of decency and fairness.
John Braggins worked for the Labour Party for 37 years. He was the first head-office staff member to take charge of by-elections for the party, running all by-elections for the party between 1988 and 200 including the Eastleigh by-election of 1993. Now he and his by-election sidekick, Alan Barnard, run their own company, bbm campaigns.