Tuesday, 26 February 2013

Why Eastleigh isn't a big test for Ed Miliband

I've read countless articles this week claiming that Labour need to do well in Eastleigh in order to prove that they're capable of winning the next general election.

Apparently the Eastleigh by-election is a 'big test' for Ed Miliband and a poor showing for Labour, would mean that he would be the "real loser" on the day.

So does this argument stack up? Not really.

As things stand Labour are projected to do only slightly better in the Eastleigh by-election than at the last general election.

That isn't great, but it doesn't tell us much about the national picture either.

In the run up to 1997 Labour suffered two truly dreadful results in Liberal / Conservative marginal by-elections in the South.

At both the Newbury and Christchurch by-elections Labour received an abysmal 2% of the vote and lost their deposit.

A few years later they went on to win the most parliamentary seats they've ever held in their history.

Similarly the Tories suffered a dreadful result at the Liverpool Edge Hill by-election in 1979, losing more than half of their support from the previous general election.

Just two months later they went on to win the general election and stayed in power for eighteen years.

The reason Labour and the Tories did so badly at those by-elections, is because they were in seats that voters knew they had no chance of winning. 

Of course all parties would rather do well in un-winnable by-elections, but it doesn't really tell us very much.

If you want to know how a party is doing then you need to look at their performance in by-elections which they have a chance of winning. 

So far this parliament Labour have done reasonably well in both safe Labour seats and marginals.

Similarly the Lib Dems have done abysmally in un-winnable seats, but appear to be holding up relatively well in this winnable one.

That isn't to say that Labour have an easy route to victory in 2015. They don't.

Voters' unease about Ed Miliband and mistrust of Labour's record on the economy could still deny them a majority at the next general election.

Alternatively Ed Miliband could go on to win a convincing majority and consign the Tories to opposition for a generation.

We don't yet know which of these will happen. What we do know is that the Eastleigh by-election won't give us much of a clue either way.

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