Report from Eastleigh: Apathy is the watchword of the doorstep

Rowenna Davis says she's never canvassed anywhere so undecided.

Jim’s face sours as he opens the door. A former lorry driver, his home is now lined with impeccable double glazing, and a proud “Number 47” plaque hangs on his porch. The small lawn outside is neat; the car in the drive is comfortable. This is his castle, but with the pensions squeeze and rising bills, he’s being forced to consider selling up.

“My wife says she won’t move, but every month we chip away at what little savings we have. We worked hard our whole lives for this, and now we’re being punished for it. My neighbour doesn’t have this problem. It’s always the honest people in the middle.”

Jim lives in Fair Oak, a Tory stronghold in Eastleigh where activists have already spent hours campaigning. With its hanging baskets freezing in the February air over neat brick houses, it’s the beating heart of middle England, and a key battleground for the by election. It’s true not even Tony Blair won Eastleigh, but without winning over people like Jim, “One Nation” is just a sound bite. Labour needs southern voters. Knocking on hundreds of doors provides a good opportunity for us to listen.

The people I met were highly aspirational, but anxious about the future. People who had worked their way up were now haunted by what feels like an inevitable pull of decline. People like Nigel, who opened the door telling me how hard he had worked to get his two sons to university, only to find one laden with debt and out of work, whilst the other was facing redundancy from army cuts. “You work hard and you get nothing for it,” he said, with an apathetic smile, “You show me one party that offers anything different.”

But it’s not just materialism that moves people. It’s also compassion. Too many people might be getting benefits in their eyes, but too few are getting the public services that they deserve, be it for young children or ageing parents. One man answered the door in a slightly less affluent part of town in a frayed V-neck sweater. He owned his own home, and his 95-year-old mum was dying next door. After working his whole life, he said he wasn’t getting the support he needed to care for her. He had tears in his eyes as he spoke to a fellow campaigner. “He was desperate,” said the activist, “But he didn’t know who to vote for.”

Apathy is the watchword of the doorstep. Never have I canvassed anywhere so undecided. For all the neat Welcome mats on doorsteps, canvassers of all colours are treated with suspicion. The high UKIP presence is symptomatic of that deep disillusionment with mainstream politics. Anyone who thinks the south is a stronghold for any party is mistaken. The Tories might be leading in the polls, but their support is brittle. For Labour, this means that there is everything to play for.

Underlying almost all of my conversations, there was a sense that a contract had been broken. The deal that says if you work hard, it will pay off. Jim, Nigel and others felt that they had “done their time” and “played by the rules”, but the simple rewards they had been promised – a decent job, a stable home and a little support when things go wrong - were slipping away. With living costs 20 per cent higher in the south, families here are particularly anxious about the news from Mervyn King yesterday that we’re going to feel even poorer for the next two years. Ed Miliband is right to raise it, as is Jon Cruddas in his lecture today.

Of course there are the more thorny issues for Labour too. Immigration. Europe. Welfare. They all come up on the doorstep. But as John Denham, MP for the neighbouring Itchen constituency points out, once you get over the myth of the stereotypical “southern voter”, you can be surprised by the subtleties of people’s attitudes, even on immigration.

The story of one retired railway worker and former UKIP voter surprised me this week. This man owned his own home and said he was seriously concerned about immigration. But it wasn’t that simple. He praised the Indians who invested in Jaguar, and said it was wrong to keep out people who were contributing. A blanket reduction of numbers pursued by the Tories was, in his view, irrational. He was happy with people coming, as long as he knew they made a contribution. Now he didn’t know who to vote for.

Back at the Labour HQ on Leigh Road, campaigners are starting to sense this space for them to win voters round. Irrespective of whether Labour wins this month, their effort, if sustained, could mean a lot for 2015 - particularly if John O'Farrell commits to staying on. Voters need to know that Labour listened, responded, and came back again when the cameras disappeared. If we do that, people like Jim might open the door with a different expression.

John O'Farrell and Harriet Harman on the campaign trail in Eastleigh. Photograph: Getty Images

Rowenna Davis is Labour PPC for Southampton Itchen and a councillor for Peckham

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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.