The opportunities for Cameron and Clegg in Eastleigh are as great as the dangers

Clegg has a chance to prove the Lib Dems won't be wiped out in 2015 and Cameron a chance to show how the Tories could win a majority.

The resignation of Chris Huhne as an MP heralds perhaps the most politically interesting by-election of this parliament. His Eastleigh constituency, just outside Southampton, is that most intriguing thing: a coalition marginal. His majority in 2010 was 3,864 over the Conservatives, with Labour a distant third. While the Guardian's Jonathan Freedland yesterday, set out the "problem for all parties" this by-election poses, it also presents some great opportunities.

Ipsos MORI’s latest poll in January had support for the Liberal Democrats at the lowest level recorded since 1990, on just eight per cent, with UKIP on nine per cent, the highest rating we have ever recorded.  At the other end, Labour had a 13-point lead over the Conservatives. Of course, this is the national picture and locally things can be very different, but it does illustrate the low ebb from which the Liberal Democrats will begin the by-election campaign.

This will be the first time since the formation of the coalition that the two parties will seriously do battle against each other for a Westminster seat. It may well prove a dry run for the general election as we get to see just how the two governing parties will set out their stalls. 

The Lib Dems have held Eastleigh since 1994 when they took the seat from the Conservatives in, appropriately enough, a by-election. At the four general elections since then, the Liberal Democrat majority over the Conservatives has never been more than 4,000. It was high on the Conservatives’ list of target seats in 2010 and will be again in 2015.

The opportunity then presents itself for the Tories to show that they can win seats from the Lib Dems at the next general election. If David Cameron and his party are to win a majority, it is seats like Eastleigh that will need to turn blue. The spoils of victory would bring a much-needed morale boost to the party and help to settle recent rumours of challenges to Cameron's leadership. 

The opportunity for the Lib Dems is also great. Winning a closely fought by-election against the Conservatives would be a huge boon to a party apparently struggling so badly in the polls. It would provide a shot in the arm for members, activists and their leaders. Nick Clegg and his team would have proved that the Liberal Democrats have not been wiped out by forming a coalition with the Conservatives and that they can hold seats at the general election.

For Ed Miliband and Labour the temptation must be to sit back, save valuable resources and watch the Tories and the Lib Dems tie themselves in knots campaigning against each other.

Since the 1994 by-election, when Labour came second, they have been less and less competitive in Eastleigh. In 2010, they won just 9.6 per cent of the vote (compared to the Liberal Democrats’ 46.5 per cent). However, think what a good performance, however unlikely, could do for Labour. Even coming second, as they did in 1994, would surely have Conservative and Liberal Democrat strategists staring at the 2015 drawing board. Miliband, a leader who has not quite convinced his own party's voters yet (only 53 per cent of Labour supporters are satisfied with his leadership compared to 75 per cent of Conservatives for Cameron), would show Labour has gained ground in areas where it was previously uncompetitive. 

In that 1994 by-election a little known Nigel Farage won just 169 more votes than Screaming Lord Sutch. Farage, now leader of UKIP, is being described as the "wildcard" in the 2013 by-election and will undoubtedly have a bigger impact on the results this time around.

But the UKIP leader has yet to decide whether he will run. The perils are obvious, if he runs and loses heavily it would slam the brakes on the momentum he and his party have been building over the last few years. A successful campaign – which does not necessarily just mean victory – would, by contrast, put further wind in the UKIP sails ahead of the general election. Farage may decide the personal risk is too great but still fully back another UKIP candidate. The opportunity for UKIP is to demonstrate that they remain a growing force in British politics.

The prospect of a strong UKIP campaign adds another dimension to the race, and allows political watchers to see the effect it can have on the other parties. We know that 43 per cent of UKIP voters voted for the Conservatives in 2010. So, will UKIP be successful in persuading Conservatives to actually vote for them and in large enough numbers to impact on the result? It is also the first electoral test for the Tories since Cameron’s promise of an in/out EU referendum. How will that impact on UKIP’s support, and what they campaign on? A damp squib of an election for UKIP could well vindicate Cameron’s decision to make the pledge.

In 2010, UKIP won just 3.6 per cent of the vote, but by-elections are unusual and can produce surprise results. Would George Galloway have won in Bradford West last year had it been a general election? Probably not, and it does not necessarily point to further success for the Respect Party in 2015. All of which throws up the prospect of another "unusual" result in Eastleigh which tells us nothing about the next general election.

This by-election is different though. It may not tell us who will win the general election but it will help to shape the narrative for all the parties, either inflating or deflating their political balloons, however temporarily. It will also give us a glimpse into some of the more intriguing aspects of 2015: how will the coalition parties fight each other? What impact will UKIP have on the outcome? Fortune though, favours the brave. There is a great deal to be won in Eastleigh for those who want it.

N.B. It is worth noting that this by-election came about because Chris Huhne asked his wife to take his speeding points; in 2006, 12 per cent of UK drivers said they would ask a friend of relative to take speeding points for them if they were facing a ban. 

Tom Mludzinski is deputy head of politics at Ipsos MORI

For the first time since the coalition was formed, the governing parties will do battle in a Lib Dem-Tory marginal. Photograph: Getty Images.

Tom Mludzinski (@tom_ComRes) is head of political polling at ComRes

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How the mantra of centrism gave populism its big break

A Labour insider reflects on the forces behind the march of populism. 

For just under a quarter of a century, British politics has been dominated by what might be called, paradoxically, a “theology of centrism” - the belief that most people were more concerned with what works than ideology, and that politics should principally be the art of improving the delivery of public goods. It was a theology that, for all their policy differences, united Tony Blair and David Cameron. Anyone who thought electoral success could be won anywhere but from the centre was either naïve or fanatical, or both... but definitely wrong.

Now, populism is on the march across the West. In Britain, as elsewhere, the political class is unnerved and baffled.

So what happened? Partly, as with all revolutions in politics, the answer is: “events”. Unsuccessful wars, economic crashes and political scandals all played their part. But that isn’t enough of an explanation. In fact, the rise of populist politics has also been a direct result of the era of centrism. Here is what has taken place:

1. A hollow left and right

First, the theology of centrism was the culmination of a decades-long hollowing out of mainstream politics on the left and right.

In the mid-20th century, Conservatism was a rich tapestry of values – tradition, localism, social conservatism, paternalism and fiscal modesty, to name but a few. By 1979, this tapestry had been replaced by a single overriding principle - faith in free-market liberalism. One of Margaret Thatcher's great achievements was to turn a fundamentalist faith in free markets into the hallmark of moderate centrism for the next generation of leaders.

It is a similar story on the left. In the mid-20th century, the left was committed to the transformation of workplace relations, the collectivisation of economic power, strong civic life in communities, internationalism, and protection of family life. By the turn of the 21st century, the left’s offer had narrowed significantly – accepting economic liberalism and using the proceeds of growth to support public investment and redistribution. It was an approach committed to managing the existing economy, not transforming the structure of it or of society.

And it was an approach that relied on good economic times to work. So when those good times disappeared after the financial crash, the centrism of both parties was left high and dry. The political economic model of New Labour disappeared in the first days of October 2008. And when a return to Tory austerity merely compounded the problem of stagnant living standards, public faith in the economic liberalism of the centre-ground was mortally wounded.

2. Fatalism about globalisation

Second, Labour and Tory politics-as-usual contained a fatalism about globalisation. The right, obsessed with economic liberalism, welcomed globalisation readily. The left under Bill Clinton in the US and Blair in the UK made their parties’ peace with it. But globalisation was not a force to be managed or mitigated. It was to be accepted wholesale. In fact, in his 2005 Conference speech, PM Tony Blair chastised those who even wanted to discuss it. “I hear people say we have to stop and debate globalisation," he said. “You might as well debate whether autumn should follow summer. They're not debating it in China and India.” (I bet they were, and still are.) The signal to voters was that it was not legitimate to fret about the pace and consequences of change. No wonder, when the fretting began, people turned away from these same politicians.

3. A narrowing policy gap

Third, the modernising projects of Blair and Cameron ended up producing a politics that was, to use Peter Mair’s term, “cartelised”. The backgrounds, worldviews and character of party elites began to converge significantly. Both parties’ leaderships accepted the same external conditions under which British politics operated – globalisation, economic liberalism, sceptical acceptance of the EU, enthusiasm for closeness to the US on security issues. The policy space between both main parties narrowed like never before. As a result, economic and class divisions in the country were less and less reflected in political divisions in Westminster.

The impression arose, with good reason, of an intellectual, cultural and financial affinity between politicians across the main divide, and between the political class and big business. This affinity in turn gave rise to a perception of “groupthink” across the elite, on issues from expenses to Europe, and one that came with a tin ear to the concerns of struggling families. It may be misleading it is to depict all politicians as snug and smug members of a remote Establishment. Nevertheless, social and economic convergence inside Westminster party politics gave populists an opportunity to present themselves as the antidote not just to Labour or the Tories, but to conventional politics as a whole.

4. New political divides

Lastly, the populist moment was created by the way in which new electoral cleavages opened up, but were ignored by the main political parties. The last decade has seen a global financial crash that has restored economic insecurity to frontline politics. But at the same time, we are witnessing a terminal decline of normal party politics based fundamentally on the division between a centre-left and centre-right offering competing economic policies. 

Of course economics and class still matter to voting. But a new cleavage has emerged that rivals and threatens to eclipse it - globalism vs nationalism. Globalists are economically liberal, positive about trade, culturally cosmopolitan, socially progressive, with a benign view of globalisation and faith in international law and cooperation. Nationalists are hostile to both social and economic liberalism, want more regulation and protection, are sceptical of trade, see immigration as an economic and cultural threat, and have little time for the liberal international order.

The factors that drive this new electoral divide are not just about voters’ economic situation. Age, geography and education levels matter – a lot. Initially both main parties were tectonically slow to respond to this new world. But populism – whether Ukip, the SNP or Theresa May's Tories – has thrived on the erosion of the traditional class divide, and sown seeds of panic into the Labour party as it faces the prospect of sections of its traditional core vote peeling away.

Centrists thought their politics was moderate, pragmatic, not ideological. But signing up to free market liberalism, globalisation and an economistic view of politics turned out to be seen as a curious kind of fundamentalism, one which was derailed by the 2008 crisis. The exhaustion of the theology of centrism did not create populism – but it did allow it a chance to appeal and succeed.

Those on the left and right watching the march of populism with trepidation need to understand this if they are to respond to it successfully. The answer to the rise of populist politics is not to mimic it, but to challenge it with a politics that wears its values proudly, and develops a vision of Britain’s future (not just its economy) on the foundation of those values. Populists need to be challenged for having the wrong values, as well as for having anger instead of solutions.

But calling for a return to centrism simply won’t work. It plays precisely to what has become an unfair but embedded caricature of New Labour and Notting Hill conservatism – power-hungry, valueless, a professional political class. It suggests a faith in moderate managerialism at a time when that has been rejected by events and the public. And it tells voters to reconcile themselves to globalisation, when they want politicians to wrestle a better deal out of it.

Stewart Wood, Lord Wood of Anfield, was a special adviser to No. 10 Downing Street from 2007 to 2010 and an adviser to former Labour leader Ed Miliband.