Britain’s two governing parties have taken to the streets of Eastleigh campaigning for a special election that has no parallel since World War II.
It’s more than 30 years since a governing party gained a seat from another in an election to fill a vacancy in Parliament in mid-term. The first coalition administration in 60 years makes it difficult to apply that guideline: The Feb. 28 battle in the southern English town is between the ruling partners.
Eastleigh is currently held by Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg’s Liberal Democrats. In its 25-year history, the party has never lost control of a seat in a by-election, as they’re known in the U.K. Still, it’s never been in government before. The vote is a test of whether Clegg can win back or replace voters angry at his decision to go into coalition with David Cameron’s Conservatives.
Cameron, whose party came second in the district in the 2010 general election, was kept from a parliamentary majority then by his failure to win voters from the Liberal Democrats. If he wants to win power in 2015 without the coalition that many of his lawmakers hate, he’ll need to win seats like Eastleigh. The opposition Labour Party trails in local polls.
“This is a prime example of a seat where Labour are nowhere and the two coalition parties will have to fight each other,” Justin Fisher, professor of politics at Brunel University, said in an interview. “Whoever loses has a real problem. If Cameron can’t win here, his party are going to ask what he can do.”
Until last week Eastleigh was represented by Chris Huhne, one of the Liberal Democrats’ most senior members. He resigned the seat after pleading guilty to lying about who was driving his car to avoid a speeding ticket. While the Conservatives have said the campaign will be about trust, Huhne’s downfall doesn’t mean the Liberal Democrats will lose the seat.
“I don’t think people are angry,” Malcolm Wing, a lecturer in mechanical engineering at the local college, said in an interview yesterday.
In 2010, the Liberal Democrats took 47 percent of the vote in Eastleigh and the Conservatives 39 percent. Polls since the by-election was announced have shown the two parties neck-and- neck in the district.
William Hill Plc today cut its odds on the Liberal Democrats holding the seat, offering a profit of 8 pounds for every 11 pounds bet if they win. The bookmaker offered 5 pounds for every 4 pounds bet on the Conservatives. Paddy Power Plc also had the Liberal Democrats as favorites.
For Cameron, currently 22 seats short of a majority in the House of Commons, the main hope of winning outright in the next general election in 2015 lies in taking votes from the Liberal Democrats.
In 2010, Labour sank nationally to its lowest vote share since 1983. Now it has a new leader, Ed Miliband, and following five years of his own coalition government’s austerity program, Cameron cannot count on Labour’s vote share going any lower.
The Liberal Democrats, on the other hand, have been punished by voters for going into coalition with the Conservatives, and are polling nationally below half the level they got in 2010.
According to Fisher, this benefits Cameron more than Labour. “There are many more seats where the race is Conservative-Liberal Democrat than Labour-Liberal Democrat,” he said. “So in a seat like Eastleigh, if half the Lib Dem vote goes to Labour, the Conservatives can still win.”
Liberal Democrats counter that their party is very good at “digging in” and holding seats, meaning a place like Eastleigh could stay in their hands even if their vote collapsed nationally.
Mike Thornton, the Liberal Democrat candidate chosen just three days ago to replace Huhne, said their support locally is strong.
“Get out there and talk to people,” he said in an interview. “They trust us. In government we’ve restrained the right wing of the Tory party. People here realize it’s worth voting Liberal Democrat.”
That view isn’t universally shared in the district.
“The coalition has been a bit of a disaster for the Liberal Democrats,” said Paul Bridgeman, 44, a mature student who voted for the party in 2010 after previously supporting the Conservatives. “I’m probably swaying in the Labour direction, looking at where the Conservatives are going on Europe, immigration and health.”
Support for the Liberal Democrats has partly been hit by their reversal since the election of a policy not to increase college tuition fees.
Jeanette Foote, 53, voted Liberal Democrat in 2010. “We were disappointed when they went into the coalition,” said the housekeeper. “I don’t know which way to vote now. None of them keep their word.”
Clegg, on his first campaign visit to the seat yesterday, said a battle between the two coalition parties could be civilized. “We can spell out our differences in a way that’s not acrimonious,” he told reporters.
The deputy prime minister has gone for a snap campaign, calling the vote for the first available date and aiming to capitalize on his party’s local organization. Liberal Democrats hold 40 of the 44 seats on the local council, and according to Thornton, who said they began discussing how they would handle this situation “about a year ago,” around the time Huhne was charged.
The Conservatives also have a candidate in place. Maria Hutchings, 51, rose to prominence after confronting Labour Prime Minister Tony Blair about disabled children on a television show during the 2005 election. She fought the seat for the Conservatives in 2010. In media interviews last week, she came out against Cameron’s position in a series of policy areas, opposing gay marriage and membership of the European Union.
While this may stop her from losing votes to the U.K. Independence Party, which many Conservatives see taking votes off them by calling for an exit from the EU and opposing same- sex marriage, it pits her against Cameron’s efforts to change the image of her party.
“She’s her own person,” Conservative Communities Secretary Eric Pickles told reporters during a visit to the district yesterday. “She’s not out of central casting. That’s a good thing.”
To contact the reporter on this story: Robert Hutton in Eastleigh, England, at firstname.lastname@example.org
To contact the editor responsible for this story: James Hertling at email@example.com