Opinion: Where do we go from Eastleigh?

Eastleigh railwayman statue - Some rights reserved by Mr. DuckeAfter a superb Eastleigh result, many Lib Dems will be rightly patting themselves on the back for what was a mammoth effort under the most difficult of circumstances. Happy memories came flooding back of the time we used to win by-elections. My first was volunteering in Dunfermline, winning a Labour heartland seat with a 16.2% swing.

After an unprecedented beating, the Tories will clearly take a long hard look at themselves – and hopefully draw all the wrong conclusions, as to why they are in such dire straits in the popularity stakes, by lurching to the right. However drawing all the wrong conclusions is not unique to the Conservative party alone – although they are spectacularly good at it.

But drawing the wrong conclusions is exactly why this comment from one of Nick’s senior advisors, quoted in the Financial Times (free registration), concerned me:

This puts to bed any chatter about Nick’s leadership which is now secure until 2015. It’s a complete vindication of his strategy and tactics. We won in the most trying of circumstances.

It is natural to expect a senior advisor to any party leader suffering weak poll ratings to use a by-election win to cement his position in the run up to the 2015 election.

But it is not the right time to shut down debate. This party needs to think long and hard about what is best for its long-term future, not only up to 2015, but beyond. Aside from deeply differing views on how the coalition has been handled as a whole, the Rennard issue, the NHS bill and Secret Courts have all been poorly handled by the party leadership, upsetting many members and voters. And all three are very much still live issues.

The warm glow of a by-election win will encourage some to sweep discontent under the carpet – and others to bite their tongue. But I think we still need some soul-searching debate, especially when you consider that the Eastleigh swing was 19.3% against the Lib Dems. That’s three percentage points more than the swing to the Lib Dems that gained us Dunfermline.

All Liberal Democrats appreciate the tough, sometimes impossible job Nick has taken in entering into coalition and bearing the brunt from a vitriolic right wing press. He deserves credit for a number of wins that probably would not have come without coalition: raising the income tax threshold, shared parental leave and gay marriage, in particular. Both classical and social liberals can celebrate these. But the situation is much more complex than trumpeting individual policy wins.

At the risk of sounding like a killjoy, which I really do not want to do, I do think it is important that debate on our direction must be had, while we are far enough out from a general election. But we should not just assume the debate is over. It is only just beginning. With all the talk of tough decisions in coalition, Liberal Democrats need to make the tough decisions to ensure what is best for the party in 2015 and beyond.

* Andy May has been a Liberal Democrat member for 10 years and was a constituency organiser in Dorset between 2006-2008. He is currently a member of Hackney Liberal Democrats.

Read more by or more about .
This entry was posted in Op-eds.


  • Grammar Police 4th Mar '13 - 2:30pm

    The 10p tax rate isn’t a Coalition (or Lib Dem) policy , and it hasn’t been introduced by the Government . . .

  • paul barker 4th Mar '13 - 3:04pm

    I am all for searching debate but it will do more harm than good if we start from false premises.
    The 2 obvious points about Eastleigh are the almost identical swing against both Government parties & the fact that it went to a classic protest party, not the official opposition.
    On the voting intention polls, they are at best a poor guide to General Elections, at worst simply a reflection of the media narrative. If we are going to take them seriously then compare them with previous mid-terms. That historical approach suggests that we are down a bit & Labour & Tories about equal. Other polling paints a different picture.

  • Tony Dawson 4th Mar '13 - 3:08pm

    I am sure that the process which Andy is advocating will start, shortly, with a proper independent and inclusive ‘inquest’ into the 2010 General Election which, though not a catastrophe, was far from the progress anticipated, Cleggmania or no. 😉

  • Andrew Martin 4th Mar '13 - 3:48pm

    Some good points made. Please could we reconsider the ‘bedroom tax’ too?

  • Hi Grammar police – thanks for pointing out the mistake, this was supposed to be raising the income tax threshold of course, duly corrected!

    Pail – one thing I hadn’t included in this blog on the point of writing but was subsequently pointed to was the Ashcroft exit polling, which shows just how problematic antipathy towards Clegg is amongst voters: http://lordashcroftpolls.com/2013/03/we-know-how-eastleigh-voted-heres-why/

    Look at the below, and tell me we don’t have a problem?

    Q. How many, if any, of the following reasons applied to why you voted for […] ?
    All Con voters Lib voters UKIP voters Lab
    The best candidate locally 68% 77% 85% 46% 59%
    The best leader nationally 42% 78% 25% 35% 56%

  • Richard Dean 4th Mar '13 - 8:22pm

    On Andy May’s statistics, more than half the UKIP voters didn’t vote for best local candidate or best national leader. Which suggests they may have voted for best policies. Which seems to suggest that LibDems should re-think policies, or re-think how arguments are made in favour of policies, and should not replace candidates or leaders.

  • Steve Comer 4th Mar '13 - 9:48pm

    ‘Where we go from here’ is actually the Local Elections on May 2nd!
    Lets all work as hard as we did in Eastleigh to make these a success, then we can have some ‘soul searching debate’ over the Summer, before we get to Autumn Conference.
    We do not have an easy run in to 2015, there are local elections for two years, and Euro elections in May? 2014.
    We are the only ones who can lead the fight against UKIP in 2014, so lets start exposing some of their stupid policies (like ‘flat tax’) now.

  • Richard – you might want to click the link and read the full table. When it comes to UKIP 83% of their voters in Eastleigh were motivated to vote that way ‘because they were unhappy with the party they normally vote for nationally, ‘ and 75% as ‘a general protest to show I am unhappy with the main parties at the moment’.

  • David Pollard 4th Mar '13 - 11:06pm

    What the LibDems should do is publicise the LibDem policies that LibDem ministers have pushed through but have not made the headlines, like all the radical moves on pensions by Steve Webb and the work on children with special educational needs by Sarah Teather. We should show how a good minister can work with usually malaigned but excellent Civil Servants to produce beneficial and long lasting legislation.

  • Good article. Obviously our parliamentarians are trying to emphasise how good the result is, but hopefully that’s more a case of trying to encourage a positive media narrative than genuinely feeling triumphal. If they do think this means we’re home and dry in 2015 then yes, they need a wake up call (e.g. perhaps Tim Farron with his slightly over-the-top “flipping heck” remark!).

    As for winning back the LD->UKIP defectors, I think they’re gone for good – they’re likely to be mostly the none-of-the-above vote which we used to benefit from, but once in government you can’t help being one of the above. The voters we need to concentrate on are those of our 2010 voters who stayed at home. They’re the ones we need to persuade to come back out for us, and the Eastleigh canvass / knock-up data and doorstep feedback should provide an excellent starting point for any soul-searching on that crucial issue.

    @ Tony Dawson
    I think a big part of the problem is that so many people were anticipating progress in the first place. In the circumstances of a close and fairly polarised election, the contemporary polling evidence was pointing to our vote being seriously squeezed. Pre-Cleggmania I was expecting us to hang on to about 45-50 MPs (even taking local incumbancy advantage into account).

    The debates shored up our vote enough to keep a few more seats, but any extra support it generated was bound to be a) new – and therefore soft, and b) nationally distributed – and therefore too thinly spread to do us any good in terms of seats.

  • Richard Dean 4th Mar '13 - 11:26pm

    Andy May. Those new statistics you quote prove my point – the national party needs to either re-shape its policies or develop more persuasive arguments in favour of them. The statistics do not show any need for a change of personnel.

  • Tony Greaves 5th Mar '13 - 12:00am

    Of course the debate must go on, or it would be more accurate to say “start”. But it’s not just about the leadership, it’s about strategy and policies for the next GE, and whether and how the approaches in Parliament ought to change as the election approaches. (And can we please stop shooting ourselves in the foot by whipping Liberal Democrasts to vote for things that we are a party don’t just “not agree with” – but oppose them completely?

    However to compare with swing from LD to UKIP in Eastleigh with anything else is unreal. If the party doing well starts from next to nothing the swing is bound to be high.

    Tony Greaves

  • Andy, you suggest that the Tories will respond to their Eastleigh defeat by “lurching to the right”. I think that’s true – witness the floated proposals to scrap the Human Rights Act and quit the ECHR, as well as the constant right-wing drumbeat for further cuts to welfare benefits.

    However, how confident are we that the LibDem leadership and MPs will hold the line against proposals such as these? Their record (such as over the NHS bill or secret courts) is hardly reassuring. The danger is that, as the Conservatives move rightwards, the coalition will follow, albeit with a few token protests from the likes of Vince Cable.

  • I think Andy makes a good point, its great we won in Eastleigh an we should celebrate this victory for the members and everyone who worked for it. But I really fail to see any national parallels that can be drawn from it.

    In truth how many seats can say they will head into the next general election in a position as strong as Eastleigh with all local council seats held and a local party machinery that has squeezed the third party almost out of existence for over a decade?

    The mistake here would be to get lulled into a message about being able to ‘win from government’ when in truth we can win if we are strong enough, DESPITE being in government. From what I saw the stronger messages in Eastleigh were local and the stronger leaflets went on the attack against the Tories.

    so if you think your local seat is a coiled dragon ready to devour all opposition in the upcoming elections and you are already on an unstoppable march to victory, perhaps you can afford to talk about what we are doing in government. Otherwise I would say attack attack attack and remind people we are not the same as the Tories and we still stand for something other than a lot of what this government is doing.

  • Peter Chegwyn 5th Mar '13 - 1:02am

    A good article and good follow-up points from Andy and Steve Comer.

    The Ashcroft polling bears out what was blindingly obvious to all in Eastleigh:

    We won BECAUSE of our local strengths and DESPITE what the Eastleigh public thought of our national Leadership, whose comments on sensitive issues in the days leading up to polling didn’t help our cause (to put it mildly!).

    As for the quoted comment from one of Nick Clegg’s advisors. I agree with the final sentence but not the first two.

  • We won despite the national leadership who displayed lack of loyalty to the man who created the campaign model which was used towin. Innocent until proven guilty should have been the basis for ‘no comment’ Thank goodness for Shirley Williams!

  • David Wilkinson 5th Mar '13 - 8:39am

    I support the idea of a debate of the future of party, but will Nick listen? If he does not like party policy he just ignores it or even votes against and most of our MP’s follow like sheep.
    That’s why the public cannot stand him. he as gone from an asset to a millstone.
    His handling of the Rennard issue shows how useless he is.
    The 2013 locals will be the test and if we have another bad year like the last two then the game is up, we have lost 1,200+ councillors to date and at least 40% of members.

  • Tony Dawson 5th Mar '13 - 8:59am

    @Peter Chegwyn :

    “As for the quoted comment from one of Nick Clegg’s advisors. I agree with the final sentence……”

    Although we are used, by now, to these mysterious un-named people getting it ‘wrong’ 75 per cent of the time (which is why we had to rely on the good local campaigners of Eastleigh to bail us out) , I think that ‘the final sentence’ would be just a LITTLE bit hard on them! 😉

  • @ Jon Walsh we still stand for something other than a lot of what this government is doing…..

    but after the vote on Secret Courts, where the party representatives voted against the clearly stated party will, this sort of statement is a good soundbite only.

  • David Allen 5th Mar '13 - 6:42pm

    On the question of the competence of Nick’s leadership, let’s put aside past events, and just concentrate on the way the allegations surrounding Lord Rennard were handled during the Eastleigh campaign On February 26th, Nick told Sky News this:

    “I understand there are many people who appear to want to act as self-appointed detectives trying to piece together events that happened many years ago but the only way that we are going to get to the bottom of the truth, the only way we are going to ensure that the women whose allegations were broadcast on television last week are properly listened to, the only way were are going to establish exactly what happened and who knew what and when, is by allowing the two investigations that I established immediately after the Channel 4 broadcast to do their job and, indeed, to allow the police, whom we have now approached, to do their job as well. And in the meantime I cannot and my party cannot provide a running commentary on every shred of speculation about events which happened many years ago.”

    So – When the Press has found out embarassing things about your Party, slag off the Press in a high-handed manner, and tell them to stop prying.

    Tell a disbelieving public that the truth can only emerge when the Party involved in the scandal eventually provides its own authorised account of what happened.

    Finally, find a way of saying that until then, you refuse to comment .

    Oh, and of course, tell the Press clearly what your story is, and then a few days later, tell them something different.

    It can’t have been easy. It can’t have been much fun. It wouldn’t have been easy for any leader to avoid all the presentational pitfalls, all of the time. But honestly – was that a strong performance?

  • Matthew Huntbach 6th Mar '13 - 12:04am


    As for winning back the LD->UKIP defectors, I think they’re gone for good – they’re likely to be mostly the none-of-the-above vote which we used to benefit from, but once in government you can’t help being one of the above

    I don’t think we should take this defeatist approach. We are losing voters because people look at the coalition and think we have become much too right wing economically in our politics – and they shift to UKIP who are far more to the right economically. Is it really impossible to point out to such people what UKIP is really about? People are angry at the LibDems for agreeing to the cut in the top rate of income tax from 59% to 45%, accusing them of handing out more money to the rich while the poor suffer. But UKIP want much bigger tax cuts for the rich than this.

    If one looks at UKIP’s policies, they really don’t add up. There are calls for things that wuold cost massive amounts of money, such as many more prisons and the restoration of students grants. How are they going to pay for this alongside the cuts in tax they want? Hand-wavy argument about the costs of being in the EU aren’t enough – even if one ignores what we would lose from leaving the EU, on the most optimistic account of what would be saved it DOESN’T pay for what else UKIP want. Why can’t we say this?

    UKIP aren’t even doing a good job of opposing the EU within the EU. What are its MEPs doing in the way of serious scrutiny of the way the EU works? Nothing much, just sitting pack taking their MEP’s salaries. It’s our LibDem MEPs who are taking their job seriously and being critical of how the EU works from within.

    If UKIP had anything like the scrutiny the LibDems get in the press, if every time one of its members said or did something silly it was highlighted as it is for Liberal Democrats, if the press went out to find the most negative interpretation of UKIP policies and motives in the way it does for the Liberal Democrats, where would UKIP be standing in the polls?

    Attacking UKIP in a way that would draw away those with centrist economic views, but leaving it to pull in those who really are socially and economically right-wing is a double win for us – we get our votes back, UKIP continue to split the Tory vote.

  • Paul Pettinger 6th Mar '13 - 11:03am

    ‘… it is important that debate on our direction must be had,’

    No one has found a reason not to have it – thank you for the contribution Andy.

  • Lib Dems on 8% today in Observer, UKIP on 17%. Not looking good to be honest.

  • Hi David – most detailed polling I have seen yet (admittedly Aschcroft polling but still useful) is here, which suggests that on current trajectory we might get 25 seats at next election:


    And that is only if our incumbency effect is as high as we hope it will be.

Post a Comment

Lib Dem Voice welcomes comments from everyone but we ask you to be polite, to be on topic and to be who you say you are. You can read our comments policy in full here. Please respect it and all readers of the site.

This post has pre moderation enabled, please be patient whilst waiting for it to be manually reviewed. Liberal Democrat Voice is made up of volunteers who keep the site running in their free time.

If you are a member of the party, you can have the Lib Dem Logo appear next to your comments to show this. You must be registered for our forum and can then login on this public site with the same username and password.

To have your photo next to your comment please signup your email address with Gravatar.

Your email is never published. Required fields are marked *

Please complete the name of this site, Liberal Democrat ...?


Recent Comments

  • User Avatarchris moore 17th Oct - 9:29am
    Congratualtions on your selection, Rajin. Delighted to see another (relatively) new member as a PPC.
  • User AvatarDavid Evans 17th Oct - 8:00am
    Darren, I acknowledge what you have said and the prevalence of academic studies supporting it, but they only address the intellectual side of the argument....
  • User AvatarChit Chong 17th Oct - 7:49am
    Hi Merlene. Well done for trying to break through in the City both as a Chinese woman and as a Democrat. As a Green I...
  • User AvatarArnold Kiel 17th Oct - 7:21am
    As almost all facts around Brexit are now clearly exposed, it is no longer about exchanging arguments but purely about psychology. Remainers must shed all...
  • User AvatarDavid Evans 17th Oct - 6:57am
    Today's Press Release - Canada (under Liberal Justin Trudeau) legalises use of Cannabis and its regulated sale. Surely we are due an article on this...
  • User AvatarGlenn 17th Oct - 6:06am
    Rob To have any meaningful impact on the climate you would need to stop most manufacturing, virtually all travel and lot more within the next...