Monday, February 25, 2013


Eastleigh Memories – Time To Go There and Make New Ones!

Liberal Democrats! Have you been to Eastleigh yet? There’s still time, for the most hotly-contested by-election of the decade. Remember their last by-election? The incumbents (Conservative) was pushed into third place, while the main challengers (Lib Dems) won – now Lib Dem and Tory starting points are reversed, will they meet those same expectations? Labour leapt up from third place to second with 28%, showing Tony Blair was headed to government – where is Ed Miliband headed from his third place? I spent weeks there when I was younger and fitter, and remember a few things that might encourage you…

The 2013 Choices

This time round, the Liberal Democrats have an excellent local councillor as candidate, from an excellent Lib Dem local council. Mike Thornton is the candidate with the best local record – as well as fighting on national issues, field-testing the new Lib Dem slogan “Stronger Economy, Fairer Society” and committed to being the 401st MP to support equal marriage. Whereas the bigots are spoilt for choice, with not just mouth-foaming minor candidates but the Tory (who disagrees on every single issue with her Prime Minister, except that they both know both their political futures depend on her winning) and, obviously, the bigot UKIP candidate threatening her are both making homophobic and xenophobic bigotry their top campaign priorities.

It’s a remarkable by-election, in that the Lib Dems have a strong local candidate, strong local issues, strong national issues (we believe in fairer taxes – the Tories don’t), and a bloody awful week of national publicity. The Tories and Labour, on the other hand, are simultaneously competing for the title of ‘Worst mainstream party candidate in a by-election since 1996’ (Jeanette Davy, South-East Staffs. She was a Lib Dem, so it’s about time one of the others won the wooden ballot paper). The Tory is an appalling snob who brays that no local school can possibly be good enough for her child, then demonstrates that no local voter is good enough for her to talk to by refusing to bother showing up for the BBC hustings. The Labour candidate is a minor comedian who says Labour supporters should “Go for it” and vote tactically for Lib Dems in seats like this – except, er, if he’s standing – and embodies the Labour Party’s Two-Minute (Thirty-Year) Hate by wishing Margaret Thatcher had been killed by terrorists.

At least George Galloway isn’t standing, having already won one by-election this Parliament and so not due to flip over to his 56th different constituency until 2015. That vile, bullying racist apologist for rapists and dictators is living proof that you can fool a lot of the people some of the time… But, after they get to know him, never more than once. UKIP with a beard and a red carpetbag.

So if you can get to Eastleigh and help (or make phone calls from your area), or donate if you can’t do either, do it today. I’m twice the age and weight I was in 1994, and have been particularly ill in the last week – but if I’m up to going out the door tomorrow or Wednesday, I aim to make it. You can read Lib Dem Voice’s or Mark Pack’s continuing reports from the campaign, and I personally recommend Liberal Youth’s “Today I Made A Difference” EastLY campaign to inspire you!

Eastleigh Memories of 1994

The 1992-97 Parliament was the period when I was young and healthy enough to spend more time helping out at Parliamentary by-elections than in the rest of my life put together – sixteen out of the eighteen that were held, in the days before parties took to tapping their older MPs to retire out of fear of lost seats. It was also the time when the largest number of policy motions I’d written got through Conference, for those foolish Lib Dems who believe campaigners and policy wonks can never mix (and are one Focus short of a delivery route). For some of the crucial ones, I spent weeks sleeping on people’s floors, or freezing to death hitch-hiking, or not being highly regarded by university tutors whose courses I was unaccountably absent from. Eastleigh was one of the friendliest, happiest, and didn’t have much rain. For all those reasons, I recommend going there yourself. And there was one more big attraction…

The bakery in town is my most indelible memory, which is odd, because though the smell of a bakery is one of the most wonderful in the world, I like pies and cream cakes, but have never cared for doughnuts. And yet, one morning I strode in and uttered the unusual but satisfying line, “Could I have two hundred doughnuts, please?” They offered ridiculous discounts for multiple buys, so that, say, one doughnut might be 85p, but you’d get three for £2, or ten for £5, with escalating discounts the more you bought. These were for the cheery campaign HQ and all the hundreds of volunteers rather than personal consumption, but the huge stack of boxes had the advantage of obscuring the rosette that might have put off an opinion pollster on the street. “Oh no,” I remember saying, “I wouldn’t like that Tony Blair as Labour Leader. Margaret Beckett’s the one you want, she’ll be very popular, and John Prescott, he’s a sensible man.” Since then, I’ve always taken opinion polls with just a pinch of icing sugar. Can any 2013 volunteers enlighten me as to if that baker is still there?

Eastleigh was also an excellent town for outspoken residents – much more exciting for a canvasser than shrinking violets. Last week, Boris Johnson failed to find a single Tory voter when knocking up the most Tory street in the constituency. I did rather better with Lib Dems last time I was there, but here are three canvassing experiences that stayed with me:
Though it was in nearby Christchurch that the candidate commented on similar voters, and in neighbouring Winchester that I had perhaps my most unrepeatable by-election experience… So I’d better repeat those another day.

Chris Huhne

And finally, one word of memorial to Chris Huhne. He’s probably not a good man, and may not be a nice one. But I’m grateful to him for two things that he was good at. He was a bloody good minister – as I’ve written before, even his Tory enemies found him (far too) effective, and we should all be grateful for the hard work he did for the country and the planet as Secretary of State For Energy and Climate Change. And before then, within the Liberal Democrats, he did more than any other individual to make raising allowances and taking the lowest-paid out of tax altogether into what became our biggest priority in the last election, our biggest priority in government, and now our biggest priority in the by-election. It was briefly a Lib Dem policy in the 1990s, swiftly dropped because it cost too much. For much of the early 2000s, I was literally the lone voice on the Federal Committee calling for it – as the bit in italics in this piece forlornly demonstrates. It took a far more powerful policy wonk than me to get it on the Lib Dem agenda, and as the bits not in italics demonstrates, that was Chris. Lib Dems with gritted teeth and freezing delivery rounds will feel they have little to thank Chris for this by-election. Millions of the lowest-paid who now pay no income tax won’t know it, but they have quite a bit to thank Chris for, actually.

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Not sure Jeanette Davy gets worst candidate badge though - what about Alec Kellaway who defected to Labour during the Newham North East by-election after he'd been nominated
You make an excellent point (I helped at that benighted by-election, too. Must have repressed the memory). It's difficult to think of any worse candidate than one who gives up being the candidate at the last minute...

On a technicality, though, I did say since 1996, and that one was on the same day as Eastleigh in 1994 :^

Jeanette Davy managed almost as big a disaster without defecting, though - sharing with Kellaway the distinction of the only two Lib Dem by-election lost deposits in England for donkeys' years, and without his reason for it; was terminally depressing in person, never seen to smile, tutting at voters and impossible to work with; and, for those who didn't meet her, she helpfully appeared on TV to say that if people voted Labour to get the Tories out, that was "a price worth paying". I remember one council leader who turned up to help, heard that, swore, got back in his car and drove all the way home again.
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