Eastleigh one year on: the by-election which secured Nick Clegg’s leadership

A year ago today, Mike Thornton was declared the new Lib Dem MP for Eastleigh.

Clegg Thornton Eastleigh

I’ve just been re-reading my first reflections on the result, written minutes after Mike’s narrow victory over Ukip was confirmed. As I pointed out then, despite the horrendous circumstances surrounding the by-election – Chris Huhne’s resignation, the allegations against Chris Rennard – Eastleigh was a good seat for the Lib Dems to contest owing to our long-standing, entrenched local strength there.

The other night’s victors, I noted, were Ukip: “There must also now be the very real possibility that Ukip could win a by-election if the right seat comes up.” It hasn’t, yet. The Tories were, of course, the clear losers. With their candidate Maria Hutchings pushed into third place, Nigel Farage came up with the soundbite of the night: “If it hadn’t have been for the Conservatives splitting the Ukip vote we might have won.”

But there was another winner from the night who I didn’t mention in that article: Nick Clegg. Because it was the party’s successful defence of Eastleigh which secured his position as Lib Dem leader, giving hope to MPs and activists that we can fight 2015 as an ‘incumbency’ election and survive it. Would Nick have faced a leadership challenge if Mike Thornton had lost? I don’t know. But his victory snuffed out the chance that it would – and I cannot see that changing, even if May’s results are disappointing. By then there will be less than a year to the next general election and the party’s focus will have to be 100% on 7th May 2015.

The Eastleigh win was hailed by party president Tim Farron as the party’s most “important by-election since the war”. At the time, I thought it was hyperbole. Well, it was hyperbole. From Nick Clegg’s perspective, though, Tim was bang on the money.

* Stephen was Editor (and Co-Editor) of Liberal Democrat Voice from 2007 to 2015, and writes at The Collected Stephen Tall.

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26 Comments

  • “even if May’s results are disappointing” : I think Nick is absolutely the right leader for the European elections, and I think we may confound the sceptics, but I wonder if Nick will even want to lead us into the general election if this year’s results are bad.

  • The Lib Dems won it because UKIP took so many votes off the Tories. If 30% of the UKIP vote in Eastleigh was a protest by voters that will switch back to the Tories at the election then Mike Thornton will be unseated.

  • “The Eastleigh win was hailed by party president Tim Farron as the party’s most “important by-election since the war”.

    Which War? Afghanistan, Iraq, Libya, Syria?

  • @Steve

    Ah, the old if people had voted differently then the result would have been different line…

  • @ATF
    Ah, the old bury-your-head-in-the-sands and ignore the evidence line

    22,130 people voted for UKIP/Tories and 13,342 voted for the Lib Dems

    The result was caused by a massive swing to UKIP who increased their share of the vote from 3.6% at the general election to 27.8% in the by-election. UKIP are a protest party. Do you seriously believe they’re going to poll anywhere close to that in 2015? UKIP won it for you.

  • I should also add that the percentage of the vote that Thornton received (32.3%) is less than the percentage of the vote that the losing Tory candidate polled in 2010 (39.1%). Eastleigh is a two-way marginal between the Lib Dems and the Tories. For the Lib Dems to retain the seat in 2015 it is going to take all those Labour-sympathising tactical voters and disaffected left-leaning Lib Dem voters to be persuaded to turn out. I don’t see Clegg and his chums doing much to persuade those voters to turn out at the moment.

  • if people had voted differently then the result would have been different

    More, ‘if people vote differently next time then the result will be different’.

  • ‘if people vote differently next time then the result will be different’.

    By-elections bear almost no resemblance to the subsequent general election results. Do you really think UKIP are going to prevent the Tory candidate winning again by taking 27.8% of the vote?

  • Alexander Matthews 28th Feb '14 - 1:26pm

    If people voted differently, the result would have been different? OMG? That is the most insightful thing I have ever read.

  • “If people voted differently, the result would have been different? OMG? That is the most insightful thing I have ever read.”

    I’m not sure who that is aimed at? If it is me, can I ask that you read what I actually wrote? By-elections are an extremely poor predictor of general election results in the same seat. UKIP had a massive increase in their share of the vote in 2013 which they are not likely to receive again in 2015. If those voters switch back to the Tories then there is a very real possibility that the Lib Dems will lose the seat in 2015. This is quite a straightforward and sensible opinion based on how by-elections work as conduits for protest votes, such as those for UKIP in Eastleigh.

  • Alexander Matthews, How much reading do you usually manage? Or do you,restrict yourself to prose without insight?

  • errrrr – we still won

  • “errrrr – we still won”

    So what? The article is about Nick Clegg’s position being secured because of Eastleigh, but the Lib Dems won the seat largely because of a massive protest vote for another party. Keeping Nick Clegg, therefore, might not prove too useful when the protest vote goes back to the Tories in 2015. In a two-way Tory/Lib Dem marginal what is important for the Lib Dems is to keep hold of the left-leaning liberal voters and tactical voters, but I can’t see Clegg persuading many of them to turn out. If I were Cameron, Eastleigh would be number on on my list of target seats as it’s one of the easiest to take from another party. Making comments like ‘errrr we still won in 2013’ isn’t going to mean anything on the morning after the general election in 2015.

  • “errrrr – we still won”

    On 32% of the vote – more than 14 points down on the 2010 result.

    Obviously it couldn’t have been done without UKIP. In fact, it’s not even arithmetically possible to win with 32% of the vote unless there are more than three candidates.

  • Paul In Twickenham 1st Mar '14 - 9:24am

    @Caractacus – I have often wondered which party achieved the most from the Brent East by-election. Was it the Lib Dems who won the seat, got some great publicity just at the start of the conference season and got Sarah Teather as an MP? Or was it the Tories who finally summoned up the courage to have the men in grey suits have that overdue talk with IDS?

  • What would UKIP’s voters have done if UKIP weren’t standing? It’s wrong to assume they would have all have voted Tory. Many would have stayed at home, many would have voted Tory but many would also have voted Lib Dem. I’m not sure the split but they’re certainly not all ex-Tories.

  • I think his position was secure due to lack of credible and willing alternatives at the time. Noone was willing to rock the boat at the time

  • If the Tories ever wake up to the idea of standing down their candidate in constituencies where UKIP are likely to do well, then we are likely to lose a number of good MPs. We have no room to be complacent. Eastleigh should be a wake up call. In Wythenshawe which is of course a strong Labour area, if the Tories had stood down then UKIP could have given Labour a serious challenge. Particularly if the postal vote rules were changed to give candidates time to campaign before the voting forms were sent out, I think that UKIP would have come a very close second in Wythenshawe. Can we please please not be complacent.

  • @john
    “It’s wrong to assume they would have all have voted Tory. ”

    I don’t think anyone did though. I didn’t – that’s why I said if 30% of them switch to Tory.

  • What would UKIP’s voters have done if UKIP weren’t standing? It’s wrong to assume they would have all have voted Tory. Many would have stayed at home, many would have voted Tory but many would also have voted Lib Dem. I’m not sure the split but they’re certainly not all ex-Tories.

    If it’s any help, judging from the latest YouGov poll, about 48% of UKIP supporters voted Tory in 2010 and about 21% voted Lib Dem.

  • nvelope2003 1st Mar '14 - 12:10pm

    Most people here seem to have overlooked the point that many of the typical anti Government by election protest votes which used to be given to the Liberal Democrats were cast for UKIP simply because the Liberal Democrats are now in Government. Those voters might very well come back and so might potential Labour voters who do not want a Conservative or UKIP MP. The general election is over a year away. Many things can happen before then but if the economy continues to improve and real incomes increase many will prefer to keep the Government in office rather than risk another Labour spending spree. Benefit cuts seem to be popular with all but a minority of the voters inspite of a vociferous camapign by opponents. Food banks existed long before the “cuts”. The poor “they will always be with you” someone once said.

  • nvelope2003 1st Mar '14 - 12:12pm

    Chris – there were a lot more than 3 candidates and this seems to be the norm now

  • Patrick Smith 1st Mar '14 - 4:32pm

    Let`s not forget that the victorious L/D MP Mike Thornton knew local people and their issues better than his rivals having served as a Borough Cllr since 2007 and this is what tipped the scales in his favour despite the hype In the Eastleigh By-Election.

    When local L/D candidates are entrenched in local community driven delivery issues like defending local schools, health services,environment and local jobs protection, the electorate will vote for them time out of number.

    Nick Clegg MP DPM is a brilliant L/D leader and commanded respect from almost 7 million voters in May 2010 but due to the national myopia in electoral reform , the L/Ds only won 57 Parliamentary Seats ,with 23% of the popular vote.

  • I think there is a touch of the ostrich syndrome in the air. A swing of 19.3% from Lib Dem to UKIP isn’t really a problem is it?

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