Mark Pack has posted last night’s poll findings from Eastleigh, showing the Tories narrowly ahead with both Labour and Ukip out of serious contention. In case you needed some reasons to help the Lib Dem campaign in the next three weeks in whatever way you’re able here are 5 from me…
The Lib Dems can win…
Lord Ashcroft’s poll is pretty ideal for the party: it piles the pressure on the Tories as early front-runners, while confirming how tight the contest will be. The Lib Dems’ local strength is significant — as Lord (Chris) Rennard has pointed out, it’s the only constituency in the country where every local authority councillor, at district and county level, comes from one party. The party even topped the poll in the 2012 Police and Crime Commissioner elections. This will matter a lot when it comes to the Get Out The Vote operation on polling day. And you can bet your bottom dollar the party’s canvas figures will be much more complete than the Tories’ and certainly Labour’s, a big factor given turnout will be down on the general election.
… And we deserve to win
So the Coalition hasn’t exactly been a bed of roses for the Lib Dems. But two things strike me time and again.
The first, often commented on by journalists, is how much more disciplined the party is being in Coalition: not just the parliamentary party, but members too. That’s not to suggest there isn’t serious disagreement within the party over its direction: there is. But because there are democratic outlets such as our party conference those disagreements haven’t descended to the acrimonious levels they have in the Tory party.
The second thing that strikes me, and is rarely commented on by journalists, is how often the Tories reach for Lib Dem policies when they defend the Coalition, whether it’s raising the tax threshold for the low-paid, or the pupil premium, or apprenticeships for young people. Put it this way, when was the last time you heard a Tory proudly stick up for cutting the 50p top tax-rate or for wanting to bring in fire-at-will employment legislation?
Eastleigh will be the party’s first road-testing of the 2015 election pitch in the Lib Dem / Tory battlegrounds: the Lib Dems have delivered some good stuff in government, and it could have been better and fairer still if it hadn’t been for the Tories.
Enjoy the Tory meltdown if they lose
Remember, the Tories start out as favourites in three ways. First, because Lord Ashcroft’s poll shows they are a nose in front. Secondly, because of the circumstances of Chris Huhne’s resignation. And thirdly, because the Tories always assume they can and should win in seats like Eastleigh. It’s fun to turn the clock back to summer 2007, and recall the Tory paroxysms which greeted their third place at the Ealing and Southall by-election, a contest they’d fully expected to win. Mind you, this time the grief might be less profound. There will be a fair few Tory MPs who wouldn’t mind defeat if it meant David Cameron were edged closer to the departure lounge.
Whatever reservations Lib Dem members might have about the direction of the party or of the Coalition, the thought of stopping the Tories re-gaining Eastleigh will guarantee a supply of eager volunteers from now until the 28th February.
Change the media narrative
If — and it remains an if — the Lib Dems hold Eastleigh, it will undoubtedly change the media narrative. The Tories are second in 38 of the Lib Dems’ 57 seats, so if they cannot win in a by-election when they are able to devote their huge financial resources to just one seat it suggests they’ll struggle to make a major dent in that tally. All those glib assertions about the Lib Dems facing ‘wipeout’ and ‘extinction’ will look pretty flaky. A hold in Eastleigh coupled with an okay set of results in this May’s English local elections would maybe ensure the media, at least the serious bits of it, take a closer look at what’s likely to happen in May 2015 rather than what they’d like to see happen then.
Oh, I promised you 5 reasons, didn’t I? Well, come on we’re Lib Dems, for goodness’ sake. If a by-election won’t get even the most jaded Clegg-sceptic, Coalition-doubting activists’s juices running then we really do have something to worry about.
* Stephen Tall is Co-Editor of Liberal Democrat Voice, and editor of the 2013 publication, The Coalition and Beyond: Liberal Reforms for the Decade Ahead. He is also a Research Associate for the liberal think-tank CentreForum and writes at his own site, The Collected Stephen Tall.