Monday, 25 February 2013

By-Election Preview: Eastleigh

The last day of February 2013 has got rather buried in a very significant week in my life.  On the 27th, I was at my grandmother's funeral; on 1st March I attain the advanced age of thirty.  I'm not sure which of these is more depressing.  In an attempt to cheer myself up, here is the preview for this week's parliamentary by-election in Eastleigh.  Kris will be covering this week's Scottish by-election in Coatbridge separately; and a later post here will go on to describe the week's three English local by-elections, in which all three parties have a seat to defend (the Tories on the Wirral, Labour in Kent, and the Lib Dems in south-west London), but first there is an extended trip to a corner of suburban Hampshire which has been the focus of much attention this past month.

Borough Constituency, House of Commons; caused by the resignation of Liberal Democrat MP (and former MEP and leadership contender) Chris Huhne who has pleaded guilty to perverting the course of justice.

Pedestriansised section of Leigh Road, Eastleigh
  © Copyright Peter Facey and licensed for
reuse under this 
Creative Commons Licence.
Oh good, here we go.  This is the first by-election since the formation of the Coalition in a Lib Dem/Tory seat, and the first to be caused by the resignation of a Liberal MP since (arguably) Leith in 1927.  With Eastleigh's marginal status the campaign has been a cracker.

There has been an Eastleigh constituency continuously since 1955.  The 1955 constituency was drawn to reduce the electorate of the Winchester and New Forest constituencies, and wrapped around the whole of the landward side of Southampton like a pair of earmuffs, from Totton (now in the New Forest East constituency) in the west to Netley and Hamble-le-Rice in the east.  It was the first constituency to divide three separate rural districts.  At the time this was a fairly rural area, and my 1950 road atlas shows a Southampton much smaller than it is today, with much of the area east of the Itchen relatively undeveloped.  Indeed at its first election in 1955 the Eastleigh constituency had just 48,929 voters.  At the time most of those would have lived in Eastleigh itself, which was then a working-class town dominated by the railways; the London and South Western Railway had opened their locomotive works here in 1891, replacing the original works at Nine Elms in London.  At the other end of the modern seat, Hamble was a rather posh yachting centre with some high-end manufacturing (including a large aerospace factory and a BP oil terminal), while Netley at the time was dominated by the Royal Victoria Military Hospital, where soldiers had convalesced since the Crimean War, although the hospital was already falling into disuse by this point.  The seat has good transport links thanks to the M3 and M27 motorways, the Eastleigh railway station with its good links to London and Southampton, and Southampton Airport, which is located in the constituency; these links have gradually transformed the seat into a commuter area for both Southampton and London.

The Eastleigh constituency didn't remain small for long, as new estates were built and the population grew.  Former villages such as Hedge End became towns in their own right.  The M27 motorway was built through the constituency, bypassing Southampton and linking the villages of the constituency together.  The Boundary Commission has struggled to keep up with the expanding population here: by 1970 the electorate had grown to 76,167, and the boundary changes implemented in February 1974 knocked less than a thousand voters off that figure.  Five years later the electorate was 85,400, and a further set of new boundaries in 1983 (by now no longer including Totton) lost fewer than 3,000 voters.  At the 1992 general election, mainly due to the continued growth of Hedge End, Eastleigh was the fourth largest constituency in the UK with 91,736 electors - only East Hampshire, the Prime Minister's seat of Huntingdon, and the perennial special case of the Isle of Wight were larger.  Hedge End's growth has now slowed down - there's not much space left - and the Boundary Commission seem to have finally got a handle on the problem of keeping the constituency's size down; the last boundary review transferred just 2,500 electors in Chandler's Ford West ward out of the seat.  Opened in 2001, probably the most famous of the constituency's recent developments is Hampshire county cricket club's Rose Bowl ground in West End, which hosted an England Test match against Sri Lanka in 2011.  (The match was ruined by rain and ended in a draw which England had the better of; Ian Bell and Kumar Sangakkara scored centuries and Chris Tremlett took six wickets in Sri Lanka's first innings.)

Throughout all this upheaval Eastleigh had just one MP for its first 37 years as a separate constituency: Sir David Price, an Old Etonian Tory who had served in the Second World War with the Scots Guards and was president of the Cambridge Union in 1948.  Sir David was pushed very close by Labour at the constituency's first contest in 1955 and in the Wilson landslide of 1966, in both of which the Tory majority was under a thousand, but after that he saw his lead in the constituency blossom.  He is still alive at the age of 88, having retired from the Commons in 1992 and passed on a 13,335-vote majority over the Liberal/Alliance to his successor Stephen Milligan, a former Oxford Union president and SDP figure who had been a journalist with the Economist, the BBC and the Sunday Times during the 1980s.  At Milligan's only election in 1992 he defeated the Liberal Democrat candidate David Chidgey by 17,702 votes, increasing the Conservative majority.

Anybody who remembers the Major years knows what happened next.  Fast forward to the first Monday of February 1994, when Milligan's secretary entered his London flat to find the MP dead with electrical cord around his neck and feet and an orange in his mouth.  The inquest heard that Milligan had accidentally asphyxiated himself, and the coroner recorded a verdict of misadventure.

Coming in the middle of the ill-fated Back to Basics campaign, one of your MPs autoerotically asphyxiating himself is not exactly helpful, and the by-election was never going to be easy.  It was held with four other parliamentary by-elections on Euro-election day in June 1994, but with the other four all being in safe Labour seats (Barking, Bradford South, Dagenham and Newham North East) this one was the centre of attention.  Renominated by the Liberal Democrats, David Chidgey, a civil engineer, ran away with the by-election, gaining a 21% swing from the Conservatives and winning by 9,239 votes over the Labour candidate Marilyn Birks, a drama lecturer who would go on to serve eight years on Eastleigh council; the Tories' Stephen Reid, the leader of Basingstoke and Deane council, trailed in third.  One Nigel Farage came in fourth of the six candidates for the UK Independence Party, just 169 votes ahead of the Official Loony Lord Sutch.

It wasn't all plain sailing for Chidgey, who faced-off again against Reid in the 1997 general election and this time held on by just 754 votes, confirming the by-election gain; Labour came within less than 5,000 votes of winning and the seat briefly looked like a three-way marginal.  This large Labour vote was successfully squeezed by Chidgey at his final election in 2001, in which he increased his majority to 3,058 ahead of the new Tory candidate Conor Burns, leader of the party group on Southampton city council, who would eventually go on to be elected to Parliament in 2010 in Bournemouth West.

David Chidgey retired to the Lords in 2005 and was replaced as Liberal Democrat candidate by Chris Huhne, who had been a Lib Dem MEP for south-east England since the introduction of proportional representation in 1999.  The son of Ann Murray, a voice of the speaking clock, he had previously been a City entrepreneur, which had made him a millionaire, having gone into that from journalism; Huhne had been economics editor of the Grauniad and business editor of the Independent and Independent on Sunday, amongst other things; one of his first major jobs was as Brussels correspondent of the Economist, a job for which he was well suited having been educated at Oxford and the Sorbonne.  While at Oxford he was active in Labour student politics and edited Isis magazine, in which he allegedly wrote an article saying that illegal drugs were an accepted facet of our society.

With Conor Burns trying again for the Tories, this was never going to be an easy campaign.  But in the end the results of Huhne's two successful general elections campaigns (he had been a Liberal/Alliance candidate in the two 1980s elections) followed the same pattern as Chidgey's results.  In 2005 Huhne squeaked past the Conservatives by a three-figure majority (568 votes this time) before putting the squeeze on the Labour vote to get a much larger majority at his next election.  This time the Tory candidate beaten by Huhne, who by now had unsuccessfully stood twice for the party leadership, was Maria Hutchings, who in 2005 had confronted Tony Blair on live Channel 5 TV about the closure of autistic schools.

One of the architects of the coalition agreement after the 2010 election, Huhne became Energy Secretary in the coalition government, serving in Cabinet until February 2012 when he was charged with perverting the course of justice following an allegation by his ex-wife, Vicky Pryce, that he had pressurised her into accepting driving licence penalty points after his car was caught by a speed camera.  Huhne pleaded guilty to the charge on 4th February 2013 and forthwith resigned his seat in Parliament.  He will be sentenced at a later date once Pryce's trial on the same charge has concluded.

Huhne's resignation has prompted a by-election which promised to be just as fascinating as the last Eastleigh by-election nineteen years ago, and the campaign has certainly lived up to that billing.  Defending for the Lib Dems, and appearing thirteenth of the fourteen candidates on the ballot paper, is Mike Thornton, an Eastleigh borough councillor since 2007 who lives in the town and represents Bishopstoke West ward.  With Huhne damaged goods, the Liberal Democrats have decided to accentuate the positive in their choice of candidate by going for somone strongly associated with the local council, an unmitigated success story from their point of view; the Lib Dems and their predecessors have been the largest party on Eastleigh council for all but two years since 1986 and controlled the council continuously since 1994.  The party's council majority keeps going up and up and now the local party weeps, for there are no more wards left to conquer; the Lib Dems have won every single district ward within the constituency at every election since 2007, when they failed to gain Eastleigh South (easily the borough's most working-class ward) from Labour by just six votes.  The last time the Tories won a council seat in the constituency was in 2004 (in Hamble-le-Rice and Butlocks Heath ward).  All six of the Hampshire county council divisions wholly or partly within the constituency boundary elected Lib Dem county councillors in 2005 and 2009.  At the most recent district council election in 2012, while four of the wards in the constituency were not up for election the only ward which would be described as marginal was Eastleigh South, in which the Lib Dems held off Labour by 13 votes; the closest the Tories came to winning a seat was 15.5 points in both Botley, and Hamble-le-Rice and Butlocks Heath wards, while the relatively well-organised local UKIP branch contested every ward and came second in Bishopstoke East and Netley Abbey.  It would appear from all this that the local council Lib Dem candidates have polled well in excess of Huhne over the last few years.  Maybe Huhne had a negative personal vote?

The Conservatives renominated Maria Hutchings, from West End, for her second tilt at the seat, a decision which they may have come to regret, as during the campaign she has proven to be something of a loose cannon; in the last week of the campaign she failed to appear at a radio hustings apparently for that reason.  Labour have gone for a minor celebrity in the shape of author and broadcaster John O'Farrell, best known in Labour circles for his 1998 memoir "Things Can Only Get Better", who has previous election experience, standing in his home town of Maidenhead in 2001 against Theresa May; he gives an address in the Vauxhall constituency.  O'Farrell has proved himself able to answer tough questions from Jeremy Paxman, being captain of an Exeter alumni team in the 2012 University Challenge Christmas specials.  The UKIP candidate is Diane James, an independent district councillor for the Surrey village of Ewhurst since winning a 2006 by-election.

The other ten candidates can be politely described as also-rans.  In alphabetical order they are Wessex Regionalist Colin Bex, from Winchester; perennial by-election candidate David Bishop, from Nottingham, for the Elvis Loves Pets Party; Jim Duggan, from Horsham, a long-standing figure in the Peace Party which saved its deposit in the recent Middlesbrough by-election; Ray Hall, from Hedge End, for his Beer, Baccy and Crumpet Party; Official Monster Raving Loony leader Howling Laud Hope, from Fleet in Hampshire; doctor and former Green Party figure Iain Maclennan, from Bursledon, a yachting village within the constituency, standing for National Health Action, a party backed by former Kidderminster Hospital/Health Concern MP Richard Taylor; Eastleigh resident Kevin Milburn for the Christian Party; Daz Procter from Havant, active in the shipping branch of the RMT, for the Trade Unionist and Socialist Coalition; local resident Danny Stupple standing as an independent and campaigning against gay marriage; and regular English Democrats by-election candidate Michael Walters, from Rochester in Kent, who has had a go at several Kent local by-elections in recent months.

The Lib Dems have the dubious advantage of one celebrity endorsement from a local resident: Stephen Gough, the naked rambler.

Although constituency polling is still an inexact science and has a dubious track record in the UK, two pollsters have tried their hand at getting a couple of balanced samples together for the constituency.  For what it's worth, here are the results:

Populus for Lord Ashcroft, 4th-5th Feb: C 34 LD 31 Lab 19 UKIP 13 (sample size 1006)
Survation for the Mail on Sunday, 6th-8th Feb: LD 36 C 33 UKIP 16 Lab 13 (sample size 504)
Survation for the Mail on Sunday, 18th-22nd Feb: C 33 LD 29 UKIP 21 Lab 13 (sample size 543)
Populus for the Sunday Times, 21st-22nd Feb: LD 33 C 28 UKIP 21 Lab 11 (sample size 1001, don't knows excluded)

So, if you believe the opinion polls, the only thing that can really be read into this is that the contest is too close to call and we're heading for an exciting result in which both the Liberal Democrats and Conservatives are neck-and-neck and UKIP are polling very well.  It's Sunday as I write this, and no doubt there are more twists to come in this by-election; we'll find out the result in the early hours of Friday morning.

Constituent Eastleigh district wards: Bishopstoke East, Bishopstoke West, Botley, Bursledon and Old Netley, Eastleigh Central, Eastleigh North, Eastleigh South, Fair Oak and Horton Heath, Hamble-le-Rice and Butlocks Heath, Hedge End Grange Park, Hedge End St John's, Hedge End Wildern, Netley Abbey, West End North, West End South
Constituent Hampshire county divisions: Bishopstoke and Fair Oak, Botley and Hedge End, Eastleigh East, Eastleigh West (part), Hamble, West End and Hedge End Grange Park
ONS Travel to Work Area: Southampton

Colin Bex (Wessex Regionalists)
David Bishop (Elvis Loves Pets)
Jim Duggan (Peace Party)
Ray Hall (Beer, Baccy and Crumpet Party)
Howling Laud Hope (Loony)
Maria Hutchings (C)
Diane James (UKIP)
Iain Maclennan (National Health Action)
Kevin Milburn (Chr)
John O'Farrell (Lab)
Daz Procter (TUSC)
Danny Stupple (Ind)
Michael Thornton (LD)
Michael Walters (EDP)

May 2010 result LD 24966 C 21102 Lab 5153 UKIP 1933 EDP 249 Ind 154 National Liberal 93
(boundary changes)
May 2005 result LD 19216 C 18648 Lab 10238 UKIP 1669
June 2001 result LD 19360 C 16302 Lab 10426 UKIP 849 Grn 636
May 1997 result LD 19453 C 18699 Lab 14883 Referendum Party 2013 UKIP 446
(boundary changes)
June 1994 by-election LD 24473 Lab 15234 C 13675 UKIP 952 Loony 783 Natural Law Party 145
Apr 1992 result C 38998 LD 21296 Lab 15768
June 1987 result C 35584 Lib/All 22229 Lab 11599
June 1983 result C 32393 Lib/All 19385 Lab 11736
(boundary changes)
May 1979 result C 38516 Lab 18222 Lib 12143
Oct 1974 result C 26869 Lab 19054 Lib 13832
Feb 1974 result C 28512 Lab 18402 Lib 17178
(boundary changes)
June 1970 result C 30300 Lab 22248 Lib 6825
March 1966 result C 24337 Lab 23636 Lib 5617
Oct 1964 result C 23249 Lab 21341 Lib 6685
Oct 1959 result C 24949 Lab 21603
May 1955 result C 20215 Lab 19670

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