That the Liberal Democrats won at all is a minor triumph for them and let no-one tell you otherwise. This is a party which was mired in a truly demeaning scandal during the last week of the Eastleigh by-election campaign, whose media operation looked utterly out of condition and whose leader was subject to the sort of scrutiny usually reserved for pariahs and criminals. Add to that the fact that Nick Clegg and the Lib Dems enjoy the support of not one single major media outlet, but can count on the active hostility of all of them, and this really does start to look like an extraordinary triumph. No leader since John Major has received quite such a pasting from the right-wing press, but at least then some papers still maintained a veneer of regard for the party Major was leading. No such exceptionalism exists for Nick Clegg. Any triumph he gains, any achievement he chalks up, is and always will be done in the face of an extraordinary hostility from mainstream press outlets.
So how did the Liberal Democrats win in Eastleigh? Two reasons I suspect. One – their organisation on the ground is excellent. They have a large number of councillors and activists in Eastleigh and they used feet on the ground to considerable effect. In the age of media and social network politics, localism still counts and a motivated ground-force can still make the difference. This is what will probably rescue the Lib Dems from oblivion in any general election.
Second – they faced the split opposition of the right, and herein lies a serious problem for the Tories. Eastleigh was a Conservative seat not so very long ago, held by a middle-ground Tory of cautiously pro-European opinions who tragically was subject to personal demons which ultimately caused his untimely death. In this by-election, conscious of the leering threat of UKIP, the local party fielded a Tory who could have been a poster girl for the right. Maria Hutchings held forthright views on immigration, is a determined euro-sceptic and would have been no Cameron patsy if elected to parliament. She is the dream candidate for those right-wing Tory MPs determined to give their party a make-over. And she lost. Not marginally, not by just a few votes. She lost substantially, coming in a humiliating third to the party whose image she tried to emulate and whose implicit endorsement she tried to achieve.
The Tories will try and draw all sorts of lessons from this defeat and most of them will be wrong. The one thing that should stand out for them in achingly luminous colours is the reality that the right-wing vote in this country is too small to permit of two competing parties. It is arguably too small to permit of even one successful party. The Tories’ split identity is beginning to harm them, but that is nothing to the rump they will become if they really do draw the lesson that what the electorate in seats like Eastleigh need is a more unvarnished brand of Tory rightism. They will never be right-wing and eurosceptic enough to appease the UKIP supporters without alienating the crucial centrist vote that all parties need to sustain themselves in government. This is a simple matter of electoral arithmetic. The Tories need to solve their identity problem and determine whether they are UKIP Mk 2, or a proper, broad, centre-right coalition who can appeal to disenchanted voters of the centre.
As for UKIP, they should enjoy their triumph. They didn’t win, but they scored their best by-election result to date. It isn’t quite as great a triumph as Nigel Farage is trumpeting. At a time when both governing parties are hugely unpopular, this party of protest failed to wrest a seat from them. It was a viable party of protest in Eastleigh but it couldn’t persuade enough voters that it might also be a viable party of parliament. In their heyday, the Social Democratic Party – a party of protest which sought to extract voters from the Labour Party in much the same way as UKIP does from the Tories – managed to pull off extraordinary by-election victories in both Conservative and Labour seats. They did it when the governing Tories were pursuing unpopular economic measures. And they never managed to translate their extraordinary by-election success into general election success, descending into third party misery each time.
UKIP’s achievement is less than the old SDP. If they can’t win a seat like Eastleigh in a by-election when protest votes account for a higher than usual proportion of the electorate, then they won’t win anything in a general election. UKIP may be pleased at their relative success, but it is still far short of promising them anything further.
Eastleigh has produced a victor, whatever the gloom that the national pundits may be pronouncing for all parties. That victor, to the dismay of the Conservatives, is their coalition partner. It will keep the coalition going, but it offers no hope to the major governing party.