By-elections are catnip for the media. But they are also, almost invariably, subject to greater scrutiny than they can reasonably bear. Only occasionally do they herald a new era or political realignment. Eastleigh is unlikely to prove an exception to that general rule. True, as Brother Payne suggests, Labour’s likely dismal showing may demonstrate that Ed Miliband’s still struggling to “connect” with southern voters but – though as a Miliband Sceptic it pains me to say so – I’m not sure we should make too much of this.
Similarly, UKIP’s good showing is likely to be over-interpreted too. So, for that matter, will the Conservatives’ (predicted) failure to win the seat, though this failure will cheer the anti-Cameron brigade on the Tory right.
With one notable qualification, little of this, I think, can be used to help predict the outcome of the next general election. That exception is the question of what we can learn from what has not (or seems not to have) happened. A collapse in the Lib Dem vote in Eastleigh might be significant. But if they can stay strong in Eastleigh in a by-election fought under less than ideal circumstances they may put up a stiffer than expected fight in Tory-Lib Dem marginals at the next election.
Be that as it may, Seb reminds us that:
Despite being beaten with a flurry of politicians of all shapes and statures, Ashcroft’s polling states that 45 per cent of the Eastleigh voters are most concerned with electing the best local MP. Only 21 per cent consider the by-election a referendum on the coalition.
Based upon what I’ve read, this would seem to be poor news for the Conservatives. This is actually quite encouraging. But it is also a reminder that by-elections are conducted under different rules to those that apply in a general election. In the latter contests it can be rational to ignore local credentials and concentrate on the national picture. It makes little sense to do so in a by-election at which selecting the best candidate (what a quaint notion!) is something it is easier to consider important.
When the voting and counting have concluded and the recriminations have begun pundits and politicians will forget all this. It’s in their interests to do so but, in the end, I suspect Eastleigh will, with apologies to Claud Cockburn, merit the headline above.