Outside the pawnbrokers on Market Street in Eastleigh, Sheena and Carla are taking a cigarette break. Carla, the elder of the pair, doesn’t know what she’ll do in the by-election in their Hampshire town on 28 February but her family has always voted Conservative. At this revelation, her younger smoking partner prods her nose up in the air in a gesture of pantomime snootiness.
The Tories are trying to lose that image, I say. “They can’t,” says Sheena, who isn’t even sure whether she’ll vote at all. “Not with David Cameron. He just looks like the typical public school boy.” What about Ed Miliband? There is a pause. “He’s a bit of a gimp, isn’t he? A drip.”
Lord Snooty v the Gimp – it is an unkind but not an uncommon account of the battle between the leaders of the two main parties. It is what focus groups have been telling Labour and Tory strategists for two years and what constituents have been telling MPs, which is why none of them feels confident about the next general election.
At least MPs have constituents to keep them grounded. Journalists are the worst offenders when it comes to forgetting that most people, most of the time, ignore the minutiae of political combat. They don’t watch Prime Minister’s Questions; they don’t speculate feverishly on the eve of cabinet reshuffles. They see politicians behaving like children and so value their promises like toy money.
What might come across as ignorance or apathy is better understood as perspective. When politics does have a material impact on people’s lives, the memory lingers. For example, Janet is an Eastleigh voter who will be supporting the Lib Dems, despite being appalled by the shenanigans of Chris Huhne, the MP who vacated the seat after pleading guilty to conspiracy charges relating to a driving offence. Janet remembers how, some 20 years ago when her children were at a local school, a Lib Dem councillor fought to have a lollipop lady placed at a lethal road crossing. It is, she says, typical of the attention the party has paid to the area. “It would be a shame if that one thing [Huhne’s disgrace] spoiled it for the rest of them.”
The loyalty of people such as Janet is what makes the Lib Dems quietly optimistic about holding the seat. They snatched Eastleigh from the Tories in a shock by-election in 1994 and have since fortified it as a bastion. The council has stayed solidly yellow even when Lib Dems have been scythed down in local elections around the country and their national poll ratings have plummeted. The whole party is pinning its hopes on Eastleigh to prove that it is not sliding towards annihilation at the next general election.
There is even more at stake for the Conservatives. If Cameron can’t dislodge his beleaguered coalition partners from a middle-class perch in the southern shires, Tory MPs will wonder what hope their leader has of winning anything. Rebellious murmurs will turn to open mutiny. Conservative ministers have orders from No 10 to pound Eastleigh pavements in pursuit of votes.
For Miliband, the contest looks barely winnable – his party came a distant third in 2010 – but worth fighting nonetheless. It is technically possible that a fragmentation of Tory and Lib Dem support could let Labour in through the middle but no one in the party I have spoken to thinks it at all likely. The main reason for giving battle is to prove that Labour can be competitive in those parts of the south-east beyond London where it was routed in 2010. As a senior party figure tells me: “It is very important politically to show that we are fighting for the votes of people in places like Eastleigh.”
Miliband can’t win a majority by stockpiling votes in safe seats or toppling lonely Lib Dem outposts in Labour’s northern and Celtic heartlands. A good showing on 28 February would help dispel the impression that he is suffering from a recrudescence of “southern discomfort” – the painful electoral obstruction that was diagnosed after defeat in 1992 and relieved only by Tony Blair’s lubricant charms.
Miliband’s project rests on the assertion that New Labour was an artefact, sculpted to meet the demands of a bygone era. His claim that “one-nation” Labour is the successor will look flimsy if the party has no impact in a scrappy brawl between two parties, both of which represent the government.
Much depends on voters who have backed the Lib Dems in the past as a tactic to thwart the Tories. Labour thinks they will punish Nick Clegg’s party for the perceived betrayal of coalition. The Lib Dems concede that this is a hazard but they are confident that local aversion to handing Cameron another seat will dissuade waverers from “wasting” a vote on Labour. “Those people simply don’t have another option,” says a local Lib Dem bigwig. “The reality of that hits them in the polling booth.”
If enough Lib Dems defect to Labour, the Tories could nab the seat, unless, that is, Ukip maintains its recent by-election form and eats into Tory support enough to allow the Lib Dems to hold on. The Eastleigh race is rich in unpredictability and electoral obliquity, which is what makes it a tantalising spectacle for the kind of person who treats politics as a contact sport. Enough is riding on the outcome for the three main party leaders that any result will be labelled a “game-changer” in Westminster – but probably not by the people who live in Eastleigh, for whom it isn’t a game.