The result in Eastleigh has provoked a lot of commentary – which is hardly surprising, because the by-election was hyped as the most important in living memory by rather a lot of people who should have known better.
Yet what Eastleigh actually shows is rather banal. The Liberal Democrats hung on after a backs-to-the-wall by-election campaign in a constituency they had held with a comfortable majority in 2010 in which they completely dominate local government – but they did so despite haemorrhaging support. The other government party, the Tories, also haemmoraghed support. And the beneficiary was UKIP, which came second, not Labour, which came fourth.
If the result had been different by just a little, of course, it might have been a game-changer. But, er, it wasn’t. Eastleigh means business as usual. David Cameron faces a little more pressure from the right of his party to be more like UKIP – but that pressure has been there for a long time. And the failure of the Tories in Eastleigh means that he has no practical option but continue to keep the coalition with the Lib Dems going just as before for the foreseeable future. (That in turn makes an electoral pact between Cameron and Nick Clegg before the next general election more likely, though that’s another story.)
UKIP’s performance in Eastleigh was impressive, to be sure, but it was in line with national opinion polls – and it is no clearer today than it was four weeks ago whether it will prove capable of mounting a credible general election campaign in 2015.
As for Labour, its poor result is hardly a disaster even though its campaign was inept. Several senior figures raised unrealistic expectations that Eastleigh was Labour’s chance for a big breakthrough in the south of England – and selecting John O’Farrell as candidate was not very clever. He’s funny as a writer and affable as a human being, but he was an outsider parachuted into a campaign dominated by local issues, and no one in the Labour camp seems to have thought that there might be quite a few hostages to fortune in his writing. The hoo-hah over his admission in his 1998 book Things Can Only Get Better that he had momentarily regretted that the IRA did not kill Margaret Thatcher was not the main reason for Labour’s poor showing, but it didn’t help. Whatever, the upshot is that Labour still needs to show that it can win in the south.
At least, though, there was a proper by-election special on the BBC…