EASTLEIGH’S voters have given cause for all three leaders of Britain’s major parties to be worried this weekend. Not even Nick Clegg, whose Liberal Democrats managed to hold the seat despite his party’s coalition government unpopularity, can rest easy. The continued rise of Ukip is a threat to them all.
Invariably, parliamentary by-elections revolve around a mixture of local and national concerns. Local factors are always more prominent than at national elections, because voters know no change of government will occur. The Lib Dems, always masters at tapping into these concerns in by-elections (a technique pioneered, ironically, by former chief executive Lord Rennard, whose shadow dogged the party’s campaign because of current allegations of inappropriate behaviour towards women) had the benefit of a well-regarded local council and a strong local party.
This goes a long way towards explaining why the party managed to hold the seat despite the election being held because the previous Lib Dem MP, Chris Huhne, now faces jail.
All the same, the party’s vote fell by 14 percentage points, reflecting its national unpopularity and suggesting that where it does not have such local strength, it will struggle to hold seats.
Ed Miliband has nothing much to cheer either. Admittedly, this is a seat where Labour has been habitually a poor also-ran, but as the main opposition party, it surely ought to have been able to capitalise on the hurt voters feel from the coalition’s austerity policies. Mr Miliband’s efforts to rebrand Labour as the “One Nation” party appear to have not yet reached the ears of people in southern England.
David Cameron reckons that his Conservatives were treated to nothing much more than the usual mid-term by-election protest vote. There is reason to think that – the Tory vote dropped by the same 14 percentage points that the Lib Dems’ share did – but this excuse is not washing with his internal party critics. The Tories spared no effort to try and win the contest, but came up woefully short. Mr Cameron has also adopted the policy – promising to hold an in or out of the European Union referendum after the next general election – that was supposed to spike Ukip’s guns. Clearly, that did not work as Nigel Farage’s party rose to take the highest percentage of votes it has taken in any Westminster contest, and took votes from all parties.
What matters now for Mr Cameron is how his MPs, particularly those in marginal constituencies vulnerable to a Ukip surge, interpret the result. For his growing number of Conservative critics, it provides a lot of ammunition as Eastleigh is high up on the list of seats that the Tories must win to have an overall majority.
The failure even to move closer to the Lib Dem incumbents can only sustain those who think that Mr Cameron is too much of a coalitionist and not enough of a Conservative.
Youthful spirit should spur us all on
NEXT time you think that Scotland’s young people are a feckless and narcissistically materialist and uncaring lot, remember the flood of applications to voluntary work at the 2014 Commonwealth Games and think again. And next time you think that there is no community spirit abroad these days, refer yourself again to those applications.
A remarkable 50,000 people – nearly 1 per cent of the population – have applied to do unpaid work at the Games, helping spectators find their way, dishing out information, assisting athletes, stewarding and picking up litter. If there were any doubts Scotland was not right behind these Games, then they are now well and truly dispelled. The spread of applications – from every part of the country and from Scots living abroad – shows that while the event itself is being held in Glasgow, the whole country regards them as Scotland’s Games. The country can take pride in the fact that the application count is well ahead of that recorded in the two most recent host cities, Melbourne and Manchester.
More thrilling, too, is the fact that nearly three-fifths of the applications have come from people under the age of 26 wanting to earn nothing more than the glow from being part of a major event. The energy of Scotland’s youth is surely a story the nation wants to tell the world, and Scotland’s young adults have stepped up to the plate.
And if the rest of the nation thinks that this particular Games job is done, think again. To seal a national success, regardless of who picks up the medals, the country still needs all 5.2 million Scots to welcome the visitors and to cheer the medal winners, wherever they come from.