Chris Huhne‘s resignation as MP for Eastleigh on Monday has triggered the most interesting by-election of this Parliament: what promises to be a tight contest between the two Coalition partners. Below is the 2010 general election result.
Given the circumstances causing the election and the likely closeness of the race, Nick Clegg has opted to take no chances and has therefore called a snap by-election in the shortest time possible: Thursday 28 February. This both limits the time for any challengers to build up a profile in the constituency and for any campaign upsets.
History of the seat
The constituency was first created in 1955, and started life as a Conservative-Labour marginal that Tory Sir David Price managed to keep a tenuous hold of. By 1970 though, Price’s lead had increased to 14% and this had more than doubled to 29% when Margaret Thatcher became Prime Minister in 1979.
In 1983, Labour slipped into third place behind the Liberal Party, although Price’s majority did not slip below 13,000 in the 1980′s. After 37 years, Price stood down in 1992 to be replaced by journalist Stephen Milligan, who increased the majority to 17,702 (23.3%) in that election despite the fall in Conservative support nationally. Eastleigh looked a very secure Conservative constituency indeed.
That changed in February 1994, at the height of the Major government’s unpopularity, when Milligan killed himself in a tragic asphyxi-wank accident. The Lib Dem 1992 challenger, David Chidgey won in a fiercely fought contest, with an impressive 58 percent turnout. The Tories slipped into third, behind Labour who were buoyed by public sympathy in the wake of the somewhat more natural death of its leader, John Smith.
Despite this, the Conservatives almost regained Eastleigh in 1997, with Chidgey only holding on by a slender 754 vote (1.4%) majority. Chidgey widened this to a margin of over 3,000 in 2001, but decided to stand down in 2005. Step forward, Chris Huhne, although his 2005 majority of only 568 votes (1.1%) was even closer than the 1997 result.
A national profile, incumbency and boundary changes helped Huhne increase this to 3,864 votes (7.2%)in 2010. Labour’s vote dropped significantly, less than half their 2005 result, suggesting tactical voting by Labour supporters to keep the Conservatives out.
The map below shows the borough of Eastleigh, with the constituency of Eastleigh outlined in red. The four wards in the borough that comprise Chandler’s Ford and Hiltingbury are outside the constituency and instead are included in the Winchester seat.
The constituency takes in the area to the east of Southampton, including much of the city’s eastern suburbs. Southampton airport lies in the constituency, and the area is well connected with the M3 and M27 and a number of railway lines tying together its communities. It is a prosperous area that boasts golf courses and yachting marinas, and Hampshire’s cricket ground.
The largest town is the titular railway town of Eastleigh although, as noted above its western suburbs lie in the Winchester constituency. ’Eastleigh’ was only created in 1868, as the villages of Barton and Eastley merged into each other as they grew around a new railway station and junction. Local author Charlotte Yonge had just donated £500 towards a new parish church and was rewarded with the privilege of choosing which village the parish should be named for. She chose Eastley, but thought that “Eastleigh” was a more modern spelling. Eastleigh lies on the main road connecting Southampton and Winchester.
Across the River Itchen is the large village of Bishopstoke, which merges into the old gravel quarry village of Fair Oak further east.
South is the town of Hedge End and the nearby villages of Botley and West End. Botley was home to early nineteenth century reformer William Cobbett, but is hardly a radical hotbed nowadays. West End is home to the Rose Bowl, Hampshire’s county cricket ground, and is really an upmarket piece of Southampton’s suburban sprawl.
Further south is yachting country: both Bursledon and Hamble-in-Rice have marinas on the River Hamble that were the basis of posh 80s’ soap Howard’s Way. The oddly named parish of Hound includes the even odder Butlocks Heath, as well as the coastal village of Netley sandwiched between the ruins of Netley Abbey and Royal Victoria Park.
The Liberal Democrats dominate local politics. Of the forty-four seats on the borough council, forty are in their hands. The other four are Conservative, but all of these are in the two Hiltingbury wards, outside the constituency: all thirty-six councillors in the constituency are Liberal Democrats. The map below shows the wards, with the four that lie in the Winchester seat shown in lighter colours.
The lead the Lib Dems hold in each ward in the constituency is summarised below.
The next series of maps show the support for each party in local elections. In each case, we have taken the average of the results from the 2010, 2011 and 2012 local elections. Six wards (Bursledon and Old Netley, Eastleigh Central, Eastleigh North, Eastleigh South, Fair Oak and Horton Heath and Hedge End St Johns) have three councillors whilst the other thirteen have two.
Given that they hold every seat, the level of Liberal Democrat support is fairly even, varying between 43% in Bishopstoke East ward and 59% in Netley Abbey ward. There support (on average) exceeds 50% in eight wards in local elections.
The Conservative support is more diverse, tending to get stronger further south (excluding Netley Abbey ward). Their share of the vote is spread between 13% (in Bishopstoke West) and 37% (in both Botley ward and Hedge End St Johns ward). The Bishopstoke West result may be skewed a little as the seats here were not up for election in 2010 (when the local elections were held on the same day as the general election).
Labour is strongest in the north west of the constituency, particularly Bishopstoke West ward (34%) and Eastleigh South ward (30%). South of the Eastleigh-Bishopstoke-Fair Oak belt, their support drops off rapidly, with only Netley Abbey ward (barely) giving them more than a 10% share of the vote. Their nadir is 6% in both Hamble-in-Rice and Butlocks Heath ward and Hedge End Grange Park ward.
Given the tight timescale, each day is critical and parties are having to select quickly.
First out the gates on Thursday were the Conservatives, who have re-selected their 2010 candidate, Eurosceptic Maria Hutchings, who lives in the constituency. She may be a controversial choice, given her hard-right views on immigration, gay rights and fox-hunting.
The Liberal Democrats chose local councillor Mike Thornton at a hustings meeting on Saturday. Given the background of the election and the need to get a new, trusted, face known quickly a local choice was always likely to be on the cards. But Thornton is not an obvious choice: a councillor for less than six years who does not hold any office in the borough. Perhaps the party wanted to insulate itself from any unpopular decisions by the local council. It may also be because Thornton is from Bishopstoke West ward, which as we have shown above has the highest Labour vote, in an attempt to ensure the Labour vote remains squeezed.
Labour are dragging their heels: the NEC will be shortlisting candidates today (Monday) for a selection hustings on Tuesday. Most intriguing of the candidates in the running is author and broadcaster, John O’Farrell. Despite the tight contest expected between the Coalition parties, some Labour activists think they could squeeze in if UKIP run a strong campaign.
UKIP also have yet to select a candidate. Early speculation included Nigel Farage himself, who stood in the 1994 by-election.
Three other candidates have been announced: Howling Laud Hope for the Monster Raving Loony Party, Ian Maclennan for Health Action and Darren Procter for the Trade Union and Socialist Coalition.
There have been two polls to date.
Lord Ashcroft published one on Friday showing the Conservatives with a three percent lead, although his pollsters actually found more people identifying as Lib Dem voters (the weighting gave the Tories the three percent lead). Both Coalition parties have lost ground since 2010 in this poll, with Labour and UKIP gaining but not by enough to be in contention. Labour are shown to be back around their pre-2010 level of support.
A second poll, by Survation for the Mail on Sunday, shows it is the Liberal Democrats ahead by three percent. In this poll, UKIP have taken third place, on 16 percent, with Labour on a paltry 13 percent. There has been some criticism of this poll’s relatively small sample size of 504 (half the size of Ashcroft’s), which gives a large margin of error of 4.4%. The poll was also by BT telephone numbers only, which may bias the result.
What is interesting about the two polls is the split between the Lib Dem-Labour vote and the right-wing party vote. In Ashcroft’s poll, the Lib Dem and Labour votes account for 50 percent of the sample, whilst the Conservative-UKIP vote is 47 percent. In the Survation poll, the Lib Dem-Labour vote is 49 percent whilst the Tory-UKIP vote is 49 percent.
This looks like an election whose outcome rests on the ability of the parties to get out the vote and for the Lib Dems and Conservatives to win support from Labour and UKIP supporters respectively.