By-elections seldom mean that much. The idea that they matter a lot is an illusion jointly propagated by party hacks, to whom they do matter a lot, and press hacks, whose job is to make them look as if they matter. Party candidates, ventriloquised by their minders, are egged on to terrorise hapless local voters with the prospective death of Nato or the EU, communist invasion, or droves of dark immigrants if they stick their cross in the wrong box. Journos generally play ball. They roll out their watersheds, such as the 1962 Orpington by-election, ‘credited’ with springing the old Liberal Party from the morgue gurney (and, one might add, much good that’s done us).
They matter little because the premise that they predict the next general election is usually false, as analysts like Pippa Norris tirelessly point out. It’s as if anthropologists were to project European marriage patterns on the strength of a night spent watching clubbers in Ibiza. So with Eastleigh, puffed before polling day as ‘the most important by-election for thirty years’; the auguries are further blurred by a surfeit of joke candidates, like the Beer, Baccy and Crumpet Party, Elvis Loves Pets, and Labour. Commentators haruspicate, tooled up with sophisticated informatics, but at bottom the reckoning still rests on bloodied guts.
Simple projection ﬂatters the Lib Dems and makes things look a bit worse for the Conservatives than they really are, despite the Tory-led administration’s impressively consistent record of policy failure. Orpington was notable not least because the Liberals triumphed after having to dump their original candidate, who’d emerged as a bigamist. Given the twin scandals of the Lord Rennard affair and Chris Huhne’s unsightly exit from public life, to have held Eastleigh is a ‘good’ result for the Lib Dems and the deputy prime minister – good in that any other result would have been bad. The party clearly beneﬁted from its strong local base (all twenty local councillors in the Eastleigh constituency are Lib Dems). The bute in Nick Clegg’s boeuf en croûte is that this result says nothing about the party’s ability to withstand electoral implosion in a couple of years’ time.
Meanwhile, the Tories’ strategy of heading off UKIP by picking a candidate whose views cloned the purple party’s in all but name was probably wise: as UKIP leader’s Nigel Farage shamelessly observed, it did succeed in splitting the UKIP vote. While it’s psephologically naive simply to add the Tory and UKIP votes, the majority was thin enough to buoy Conservatives’ hopes that in 2015 they can tip out their coalition partners both here and in the many seats where the Lib Dems pipped the Tories in 2010. Despite the losing Tory candidate’s impeccable Eurobarking credentials, this result is hardly going to shut Cameron’s rightist critics up – but then nothing does.
My own high-tech modelling before the poll was declared, based on Facebook chats with Southampton-based pals and a visit to the Corals and Ladbrokes betting sites, managed to pick the 1-2-3-4 and made a reasonable stab at the victory margin (2000), but blooped egregiously on the turnout (a predicted 76 per cent, against the actual 51). That may be the most signiﬁcant ﬁgure of all. Not that this is very low by by-election standards (an average 49 per cent in the 2005-10 parliament), but mass apathy is always an electoral imponderable: as Harold Wilson used to say, observers tend to overstate the role of swing voters as against differential abstention. The problem for UKIP is that it’s only a matter of time before the public wearies of its leader’s farraginous persona and policies, and its premium as the anti-politics party depreciates: indeed, the turnout suggests that Nigel fatigue may already be setting in.
The problem the anti-politics posture throws up for all parties, not just UKIP, is that it is most naturally expressed by those who vote with their arse. The most memorable campaign image was that of Stephen Gough, the Naked Rambler, who came out as a Lib Dem supporter and featured in Southampton’s Daily Echo with a strategically-placed yellow rosette. Despite this, Gough told the Echo he ‘probably wouldn’t vote’. For apparatchiks, then, there’s everything to ﬁght for in 2015; but the real task is to persuade everyone else that the game isn’t already up.