Eastleigh by-election: What result means for the parties

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The Lib Dems held onto the seat of Eastleigh after a fiercely contested by-election in which the UK Independence Party pushed the Conservatives into third and Labour into fourth. As the dust settles, what might the result mean for each party?

Candidates in Eastleigh by-election

Liberal Democrats

Before we get bogged down in too much analysis, let's point out the obvious. They won. So actually, nothing changed. One former Lib Dem MP, Chris Huhne, is probably heading for prison. And another is replacing him in Parliament.

But this result matters because those garish orange placards proclaiming "Liberal Democrats: winning here" have not had much of an outing in the last few years. Their national opinion poll ratings have been consistently in the gutter or even below it; Nick Clegg has been many people's favourite cartoon political villain. So Liberal Democrats will be seen smiling for a bit.

But let's insert a few caveats. They are smiles of relief rather than joy. Smiles that reflect avoiding defeat rather than securing a breakthrough. In the gales of analysis that are sweeping Westminster, political weather forecasters will talk about Conservative clouds and UKIP sunshine.

More on that in a moment. But take a look at what happened to the Liberal Democrat share of the vote in Eastleigh compared to 2010. It fell by 14.4 percentage points. So they are losing votes too to other parties, including UKIP. UKIP and the Liberal Democrats might be a million miles apart politically. But the Lib Dems used to be, for some, the "none of the above" option. It is UKIP now ticking that box.

UK Independence Party

Nigel Farage giving a TV interview in Eastleigh UKIP surged in Eastleigh but could it replicate this in a general election?

This was the UK Independence Party's best-ever by-election result. But it was the fourth time in less than two years that they have come second in a race for a Westminster seat. So something of a trend is emerging. Why?

A confluence of factors is contributing to the current apparent rise. The party's big beef, the European Union and its take on it, has arguably never been more prominent or more fashionable. One of its consistent gripes, immigration, remains a top priority for many people.

And for supporters on the right, UKIP can claim to offer the real deal Conservative cordial, rather than what they see as the diluted squash of coalition. "Traditional Tory voters here don't think David Cameron is a Conservative," UKIP's leader Nigel Farage told the BBC. And make no mistake, this result will spook many Tory backbenchers.

But, it is a mistake to see UKIP as purely a sucker-upper of Conservative votes. Senior people in the party have long been fascinated by the rise of the Lib Dems in the 1980s and 1990s. Over time, they became, for many, the respectable repository of a protest vote. But they vacated that territory when they went into government. For a party like UKIP, on the rise, it is territory worth claiming loudly as its own.

The Conservatives

Much of the coverage of the outcome of this by election will focus on just how firmly the UKIP bulldog has planted its gnashers in the Conservative backside.

If you are a Tory MP nursing a slim majority, this result won't settle your nerves. If you are a Tory MP who never liked David Cameron anyway, this result won't calm your heart rate.

"David Cameron has to wake up and appreciate the fact that the entire world does not live in Notting Hill," sniped one backbencher. Ouch. So the prime minister has some party management issues to deal with. But then we knew that already.

Again, though, a couple of caveats. The Conservative share of the vote fell by 13.9 percentage points in Eastleigh. A whopping drop. But not as big as the Lib Dems suffered. And let's remember the crucial battle at the next election will be between the Conservatives and Labour and which party can get the most MPs.

Labour

Labour was an irrelevance in the battle for Eastleigh. It finished fourth. Ed Miliband points out the party only finished third in the town in 1997 when Tony Blair swept into power.

Labour leader Ed Miliband and the party's candidate John O'Farrell Labour made little headway in Eastleigh

And yes, it was never likely to win in this corner of Hampshire. But Mr Miliband's big pitch is that he leads what he calls "One Nation Labour." The idea is that it should believe it can win anywhere.

And yet it made barely any progress at all in Eastleigh, even from a very low base. Just a 0.2 percentage points increase on the party's vote in 2010. The last time there was a by-election in Eastleigh there was also a Conservative prime minister.

It was Sir John Major and it was 1994. Yes, Labour didn't win then either, but it did finish second and beat the Conservatives. This time it was beaten by both the parties in government, and a party without any MPs.

All of the others

No other party managed to persuade more than a thousand people to back its cause. But that didn't stop another 10 candidates having a go.

But one thing does seem clear. The future of Hampshire is firmly within the UK. The candidate for the Wessex Regionalists, which campaigns for greater autonomy for the historic region in south and south-west of England, amassed the sum total of 30 votes. So Union flags won't be lowered from the flagpoles of Eastleigh just yet.

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