Eastleigh shows why Labour-Lib Dem tactical voting will matter in 2015

With the Tories in second place in 38 of the Lib Dems' 57 seats, Labour will need to consider whether to tacitly advise its supporters to vote for Clegg's party.

The first poll on the Eastleigh by-election, courtesy of Lord Ashcroft, suggests that the contest will be as tight as expected. The Conservatives are in the lead on 34 per cent, three points ahead of the Lib Dems, who have held the seat since 1994 (another by-election). But when all responses are included, rather than those certain to vote, the positions are reversed, with the Lib Dems three points ahead of the Tories (32-29). The challenge for Clegg's party, which holds all 36 council seats in the constituency, will be getting out its vote. 

Labour is in third place on 19 per cent, an increase of nine points since the general election, but far behind the Lib Dems and the Tories. On last night's edition of This Week, Alan Johnson bluntly declared: "Labour aren't going to win." 

Among other things, then, Eastleigh is a reminder that tactical voting will be a major issue in 2015. Indeed, if the Conservatives win on 28 February, it will become an issue immediately. The Tories are in second place in 38 of the Lib Dems' 57 seats and half of those on its target list are held by Clegg's party. If Labour is to prevent the Tories from decapitating scores of Lib Dems, it will need to consider whether to advise its supporters to cast tactical votes. In 2010, Ed Balls and Peter Hain both argued that Labour supporters should consider lending their votes to the Lib Dems in seats where the party couldn't win. But after five years of Clegg and co. acting as the Tories' "accomplices", it is doubtful whether many Labour figures will repeat this call. 

The biggest electoral headache for the Conservatives remains that any collapse in the Lib Dem vote will work to Labour's advantage in Tory-Labour marginals, as was shown in the Corby by-election. If this patten is repeated at the general election, the Tories stand to lose dozens of seats - there are 37 Con-Lab marginals where the third place Lib Dem vote is more than twice the margin of victory. 

If they are to stand any chance of winning a majority at the next election or even remaining the largest single party, the Tories need to hope for a partial Lib Dem recovery.

Nick Clegg with Ed Miliband at Buckingham Palace to mark the Duke of Edinburgh's 90th birthday on June 30, 2011 in London. Photograph: Getty Images.

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

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Why the Liberal Democrats by-election surge is not all it seems

The Lib Dems chalked up impressive results in Stoke and Copeland. But just how much of a fight back is it?

By the now conventional post-Brexit logic, Stoke and Copeland ought to have been uniquely inhospitable for the Lib Dems. 

The party lost its deposit in both seats in 2015, and has no representation on either council. So too were the referendum odds stacked against it: in Stoke, the so-called Brexit capital of Britain, 70 per cent of voters backed Leave last June, as did 62 per cent in Copeland. And, as Stephen has written before, the Lib Dems’ mini-revival has so far been most pronounced in affluent, Conservative-leaning areas which swung for remain. 

So what explains the modest – but impressive – surges in their vote share in yesterday’s contests? In Stoke, where they finished fifth in 2015, the party won 9.8 per cent of the vote, up 5.7 percentage points. They also more than doubled their vote share in Copeland, where they beat Ukip for third with 7.3 per cent share of the vote.

The Brexit explanation is a tempting and not entirely invalid one. Each seat’s not insignificant pro-EU minority was more or less ignored by most of the national media, for whom the existence of remainers in what we’re now obliged to call “left-behind Britain” is often a nuance too far. With the Prime Minister Theresa May pushing for a hard Brexit and Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn waving it through, Lib Dem leader Tim Farron has made the pro-EU narrative his own. As was the case for Charles Kennedy in the Iraq War years, this confers upon the Lib Dems a status and platform they were denied as the junior partners in coalition. 

While their stance on Europe is slowly but surely helping the Lib Dems rebuild their pre-2015 demographic core - students, graduates and middle-class professionals employed in the public sector – last night’s results, particularly in Stoke, also give them reason for mild disappointment. 

In Stoke, campaign staffers privately predicted they might manage to beat Ukip for second or third place. The party ran a full campaign for the first time in several years, and canvassing returns suggested significant numbers of Labour voters, mainly public sector workers disenchanted with Corbyn’s stance on Europe, were set to vote Lib Dem. Nor were they intimidated by the Brexit factor: recent council by-elections in Sunderland and Rotheram, which both voted decisively to leave, saw the Lib Dems win seats for the first time on massive swings. 

So it could well be argued that their candidate, local cardiologist Zulfiqar Ali, ought to have done better. Staffordshire University’s campus, which Tim Farron visited as part of a voter registration drive, falls within the seat’s boundaries. Ali, unlike his Labour competitor Gareth Snell and Ukip leader Paul Nuttall, didn’t have his campaign derailed or disrupted by negative media attention. Unlike the Tory candidate Jack Brereton, he had the benefit of being older than 25. And, like 15 per cent of the electorate, he is of Kashmiri origin.  

In public and in private, Lib Dems say the fact that Stoke was a two-horse race between Labour and Ukip ultimately worked to their disadvantage. The prospect of Nuttall as their MP may well have been enough to convince a good number of the Labour waverers mentioned earlier to back Snell. 

With his party hovering at around 10 per cent in national polls, last night’s results give Farron cause for optimism – especially after their near-wipeout in 2015. But it’s easy to forget the bigger picture in all of this. The party have chalked up a string of impressive parliamentary by-election results – second in Witney, a spectacular win in Richmond Park, third in Sleaford and Copeland, and a strong fourth in Stoke. 

However, most of these results represent a reversion to, or indeed an underperformance compared to, the party’s pre-2015 norm. With the notable exception of Richmond’s Sarah Olney, who only joined the Lib Dems after the last general election, these candidates haven’t - or the Lib Dem vote - come from nowhere. Zulfiqar Ali previously sat on the council in Stoke and had fought the seat before, and Witney’s Liz Leffman and Sleaford’s Ross Pepper are both popular local councillors. And for all the excited commentary about Richmond, it was, of course, held by the Lib Dems for 13 years before Zac Goldsmith won it for the Tories in 2010. 

The EU referendum may have given the Lib Dems a new lease of life, but, as their #LibDemFightback trope suggests, they’re best understood as a revanchist, and not insurgent, force. Much has been said about Brexit realigning our politics, but, for now at least, the party’s new normal is looking quite a lot like the old one.