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Don’t panic: the Tories can do better than Eastleigh

1 March 2013

There’s no disguising the fact that last night’s result was a very disappointing one for Conservatives.

There were three small crumbs of comfort.

First, the poor performance of Labour, our only realistic rivals in terms of winning the next Election. The opinion polls say Labour are doing 12 or 13 percentage points better than they did at the last Election, but on the ground in Eastleigh they increased their share of the vote by just 0.22 per cent. In the 1994 Eastleigh by-election, held before Tony Blair was elected Leader, Labour came second with 27.6% of the vote.  Yesterday, they managed fourth place with just 9.8% of the vote, suggesting – as do local government by-election results week in week out – that their opinion poll lead is soft and that they will struggle to win their target seats, particularly in the South.

Second, logistically the campaigning team at CCHQ ran a good operation.  The campaign centres were well run, the literature looked professional and every time I went to help my time was well used.

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Third, the Party was up for the fight. Lots of people went to Eastleigh to help, many of them on more than one occasion, making up for our lack of organisation in the seat.

But though we can draw some comfort from these three crumbs, the result demonstrates to anyone who didn’t know it already that we face three big challenges.

First, rebuilding our ground organisation in many target seats.

Second, the difficulty of gaining Liberal Democrat seats.  Eastleigh shows that we cannot rely on a national fall in the Liberal Democrat share of the vote to deliver lots of seats to us. In seats with a strong Liberal Democrat presence, people vote Liberal Democrat because of their local record, not their national record – Chris Huhne’s conviction, the accusations about Lord Rennard were never going to make much difference.  When I was out knocking on doors, I met elector after elector who said they were voting Liberal Democrat because ‘they do a good job round here’.  At the General Election, we will have an additional argument at our disposal – we will be able to say that unless people vote Conservative there is a real risk that they will end up with Ed Miliband as Prime Minister. But as people like Andrew Jones and Steve Brine demonstrated at the last Election, we have to match the Liberal Democrats at pavement politics in the years leading up to an election to get permission to make these national arguments. In Eastleigh, where every single councillor was Liberal Democrat, we hadn’t done that.

And finally, the UKIP threat. Now that the Liberal Democrats are in government, UKIP have taken over as the natural party of protest at by-elections attracting support from all quarters (according to a post-election poll by Lord Ashcroft, 22 per cent of 2010 Conservatives voted UKIP but so did 19 per cent of 2010 Liberal Democrats). But we shouldn’t just dismiss this as a protest. UKIP won’t do as well at the General Election – in Eastleigh or anyone else – as they did last night (Lord Ashcroft’s poll found that just 43 per cent of those who voted UKIP yesterday plan to do so again at the General Election), but there is a real risk that they will poll higher than at the last Election and if those votes come from people who would otherwise vote Conservative it will cost us seats. Of course, we need to reassure disaffected Conservatives on Europe and on immigration, but we cannot out-UKIP UKIP. Nor can we afford to focus exclusively on this group of voters – we also need to reach out to floating voters who may be more concerned about jobs, the cost of living or the NHS. As Tim Montgomerie has argued on Conservative Home this morning, we need a broad offering.

And most of all, we need to avoid panicking. It was a bad result. It has laid bare the strategic challenges we face. But plenty of governments have recovered from worse mid-term results and won. If we stick together and address those challenges, so can we.

Gavin Barwell is the Conservative MP for Croydon Central.

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  • Renie Anjeh

    Terrible piece on Labour. Firstly, Labour did not pour a lot of resources in the seat, they had no activist or local base and selected their PPC later than the other parties. Secondly, in 1994 there were strong Labour wards in Eastleigh which are now in Southampton Itchen due to boundary changes over last 20 years. Thirdly, although I do like John O’Farrell, the comments in his book about how he thought about Margaret Thatcher’s death when he was a hard-left young Labour activist did the party no favours. Fourthly, Eastleigh is one of the very few areas were the Lib Dems are extremely strong and they have not only every single councillor in the seat but a strong local record.
    Gavin Barwell is making a huge mistake by trying to overplay Labour’s problem in Eastleigh, a seat that it has never won. Judging by this result and his party’s result in Corby, he should be fretting about his political career because he stands almost no chance of holding his seat in 2015!

  • Nick

    A few weeks ago I sent an e mail to my local Tory MP explaining succinctly why I will vote for UKIP as opposed to Conservative.What I received fom her was an automated e mail informing me to write a letter to her to which she would respond in kind…….Why?
    Why not just reply by e mail……..And now I have another reason not to vote for the Tories.

  • adam_01

    I find rallying around “cuts” rather ineffective. What do the conservatives truly stand for? Or are they too beholden to the media…

  • Smithersjones2013

    Shall I sum up the Tories biggest problem in two words:


  • Mark_ld

    Great Article, spot on analysis.

    • AnotherDaveB

      “Eastleigh shows that we cannot rely on a national fall in the Liberal Democrat share of the vote to deliver lots of seats to us. In seats with a strong Liberal Democrat presence, people vote Liberal Democrat because of their local record, not their national record –”

      The LD vote in Eastleigh fell in line with their national polling. They’re down by a third since 2010. Local LD activity did nothing to alleviate that fall.

      • keeshond

        “The LD vote in Eastleigh fell in line with their national polling.
        They’re down by a third since 2010. Local LD activity did nothing to
        alleviate that fall.”

        Nothing to do with the fact that they had postal voting sown up by and for their core supporters at the end of the second week – and that counts in a snappy three week campaign – or that their their local organisation was using a sophisticated database which the party’s team was able to activate the moment it called the date of the by-election, I suppose?
        I have rarely read such ridiculous complacency. The LibDems had to call a by-election after the sitting MP resigned in disgrace, followed by another political crisis during that election to which the party’s response at national level was non-existent when it wasn’t thoroughly inept.

        Only the party’s local organisation and loyal voter core saved it from defeat.

  • Charles Hedges

    Mr Barwell, it is Tory support for ATOS and for Sir David Nicholson which ensures you are the (very) nasty party. Show us Tory compassion, rather than Tory greed and self-righteousness, and we may consider voting for you again.

  • Swiss Bob

    If the Tories can’t see what a game changer the UKIP vote was then more fool them.

    I keep hearing that a vote for UKIP is a vote wasted or one for Labour. We don’t care any more because we don’t see a difference between Labour and the Tories, and whether you agree with that or not doesn’t matter, it’s what UKIP voters believe that matters.

    • 2trueblue

      If you can’t see any difference between Liebore and and the Tories, you are in more trouble than the Tories.

      • Rhoda Klapp

        Simple. Labour have no sensible policies or competence. The tories know what sensible policies are but are never quite able to implement them, because of circumstances, or so they say. They haven’t any competence either. Both are wet. It really doesn’t matter much to compare degrees of wetness.

        • 2trueblue

          The difference is that Liebore did actually drown us in debt and left it to the Conservatives to tidy it up. Up to your a.. in alligators is not the best position to be in when you are stuck with such a mess. Perhaps we will find out within the next 2yrs. what wonderful solutions are available to us when the next government gets voted in. UKIP will not be in power, Liebore will be.

  • Russell Thompson


  • Russell

    Another person in total denial.
    Seats that are marginal Tory/LibDem seats cannot be won by the Tories as UKIP will massively reduce the Tory vote at the least, UKIP may win some of these seats.
    Seats that are marginal Tory/Labour seats cannot be won by the Tories as UKIP will massively reduce the Tory vote.
    Even seats which Cameron thinks are relatively safe Tory seats are not as UKIP will take many Tory votes as well as Labour or LibDem The voters do not want three pro EU parties who have all let down the people. The voters don’t want Tory. Labour or LibDem MP’s generally, unless any of those MP’s is deserving of a vote.

    • Russell

      P.S. Trying to scare voters into voting Tory or ….the big bad labour party will win will not work. People are totally sick of all the three main parties and don’t really care if it allows the rotten labour party in as the tories equally couldn’t care less about the voters. A significant majority of voters want out of the EU, so are unlikely to vote for a Tory party who will campaign to keep us in even if they did keep their ‘promise’ and hold a referendum.

  • Wrath of Rune

    Gavin, you are perfectly symbolic of the metroplitan ‘elite’ that have colonised Westminster, precicely what is driving activists and supporters into the arms of UKIP.

    Metropolitan Tories are toxic. You no longer share my views or my outlook. You no longer strive for Majority Conservatism you pursue Minority Conservatism and twisted form of corporatism.

    It is not so much that people like me have left the party, the party has left us. I have no option but to vote UKIP, I genuinely see nothing of any practical difference between Labour and Conservative (or LibDems).

    I take no joy at switching my vote to another party, but don’t think this is of a simple protest vote, it is born of pure resignation that the Conservative Party I once believed in, is dead.

    • Austin Barry

      One thing was quite clear from Cameron’s comments this morning: He just doesn’t get it – at all.

      • CharlietheChump

        Gove too which makes me very sad

    • CharlietheChump

      Minority Conservative social democracy more like

    • ButcombeMan

      “It is not so much that people like me have left the party, the party has left us”.

      Absolutely spot on-congratulations.

  • Joe marjoram

    Berlin, April 1945 and a determined leader implores his troops to begin final preparations for a heroic victory.

    Sorry, I didn’t mean Berlin 1945, of should have read downing Street, April 2015.

  • Archimedes

    Why are you so heavily disposed to underestimating UKIP? The Liberal Democrats were the protest party because they were managing their decline and they allowed themselves to be pigeon-holed. UKIP is not managing the decline of their party, they are managing the rise, and once they have captured the protest vote they will move on and alter their strategy. If you haven’t figured that out, then you certainly don’t have a credible strategy in place to deal with them in 2015. If you want a historical comparison for UKIP, then stop looking at the LibDems and look at the Labour party circa 1910, or the Conservative party in the mid 19th century. Above all, stop underestimating your opponent.

  • duyfken

    I would suggest to Mr Barwell that this is indeed the time to start panicking.

  • Tom Tom

    Why do you bother writing this ? Do you think people outside SW1 really care ? The cartoon by Steve Bell today sums it up perfectly and explains that for the bulk of the population it will be like the Israelites making bricks in Egypt

    • Tom Tom

      Ah, you were a SpAd – enough said

  • Chris lancashire

    Excellent, balanced article after all the fuss of a by-election where lots of fun replaces serious politics. Whilst there is no room for complacency in the Conservative Party neither is there any need for panic.

    • Charles Hedges

      Plenty of reasons to panic about Tory policies, unless you have shares in ATOS or private health care as most MP’s do.

  • Daniel Maris

    I am not sure there is a solution to this for the Tories.

    They are never going to square the European circle.

    The effects of mass immigration are destabilising the country but the Tories appear unable and unwilling to address the issues (links into the EU of course).

    At the same time they seem to have stopped being a “conservative” party at all, not wishing to defend the traditional understanding of what a marriage is.

    Take that all together and I don’t think that the Tories can effect any Houdini tricks here. UKIP seem likely to take at least 10% at a general election. Even Miliband must benefit from the economic failures of this government, given the continuing and intensifying spread of economic insecurity across the population.

    I think the most likely outcome at the next election on current form is a Lib-Lab coalition.

    • Tom Tom

      Roubini speaks of Zombie Households in Zombie countries with Zombie Companies and Zombie Banks………………….

      • Tom Tom
      • CharlietheChump

        And zombie parties with virtually no membership support all squabbling over the same limp policies.

        • Tom Tom

          Amazing how widespread Zombiedom becomes…….

    • Olaf

      I find no errors in your statement

    • Russell

      I agree with a lot of your comment, but think the situation for Cameron and Tory MP’s is a lot worse as UKIP will get significantly more than 10% at the general election.

      • CharlietheChump

        Trouble with UKIP is there’s only Nige and that nice woman who stood in Eastleigh, can’t remember her name, but, you know, she talked a lot of sense, very well turned out, what was her name, it’s on the tip of my tongue. . . .
        Even Milli Minor has some names and a little talent that people can remember in his squad; apart from Nige who are the UKIP Team?
        At the national level UKIP are just not a credible alternative, I wish they were, but they’re not. Local and EU they’ll do well, General Election, no.

        • James Strong

          You make a good point about how UKIP is perceived as only having Farage.
          I want UKIP to do well; I would advise Nigel Farage to identify 2,3 or 4 of his best media performers and get them on to TV and Radio programmes, starting from now. But he shouldn’t stop appearing himself.

        • Makroon

          You can be sure a handful of craven Tories will peel away to UKIP if the polls stay the same. Shaun Woodward stylee.

          • Tom Tom

            Who replaced Shaun Woodward in Witney ?

        • ButcombeMan

          That is only the effect of exposure.

      • an ex-tory voter

        You ignore the fact that Labour is also losing large numbers of voters to UKIP

  • The Red Bladder

    It is a fairly strong wind to be whistling in.

  • Rhoda Klapp

    How are you going to build a ground game if you alienate a large proportion of your members? Stick your fingers in your ears and hope UKIP goes away?

    Rhoda’s humble suggestion: Ditch the pinko loser. If you have to ask which one, then all of them.

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