Politics offers few greater pleasures than watching a by-election candidate self-immolate. Not a day goes by without Maria Hutchings, the Conservative party’s prospective MP for Eastleigh (so plainly hating the whole thing), tossing another match on the pyre of her electoral credibility.
But beyond the enjoyable barbarism of democracy, an important question is emerging from Eastleigh for the Labour party: how ready are we for government? Because if David Cameron cannot win in true blue Hampshire, on the back of a Liberal Democrat Cabinet minister perverting the course of justice, then he is well and truly stuffed.
When the Eastleigh by-election was called, there was a lazy Westminster debate about Labour’s job being to decide which coalition partner should win. Do we go in hard and let the Tories in; or hang back to let the Liberal Democrats keep the seat?
Rightly, Ed Miliband decided to fight to win with a high-profile candidate. John O’Farrell might be a comedian, but we are taking this by-election seriously, because if Labour is not interested in representing Eastleigh, then we have no governing project. ‘The party has to recover in the south for the sake of political principle, not just electoral advantage,’ wrote the Labour intellectuals Patrick Diamond and Giles Radice after the 2010 defeat left us with only ten seats out of 197 in southern England. ‘Labour should aspire to be a national party in every geographical and social constituency.’
This is as true of Eastleigh as it is of Stoke-on-Trent or Gateshead. Eastleigh is an everyday place: there is not a great deal of family money here, but a lot of regular concerns about squeezed budgets and public services. What is more, voters in Hampshire and the south do not have a foreign set of values to the heartlands of the Labour north. Instead, the difference is that the Labour party has too often failed to provide both a language which speaks to southern voters and a presence on the ground.
This is the psychological significance of Eastleigh. It shows that the Labour party is not going to retreat to a core strategy of upping the solid Labour vote while picking off disaffected Liberal Democrats. Nor will we limit ourselves to precision strikes against a few target wards in Stevenage and Redditch. Instead, we will treat the electorate with respect by offering them choice.
The tactic has already proved a success. John Denham, Southampton MP and Ed Miliband eminence grise, speaks of a grass-roots revival of Labour members across Dorset, Sussex, Hampshire and even Surrey. They are charging along the M3 to gain the doorstep training which will put those southern marginals of Dover, Thurrock, and Brighton Kempton in play.
For oppositions to win, governments also need to lose — and this one is doing so with gusto. The Tory and Lib Dem campaigns have been reduced to fights over various local planning permissions, all of which they have endorsed at national level. Indeed, the usual Lib Dem tactic of disavowing any responsibility for anything ever — hoping to be the protest vote against their own government — seems to be unwinding.
But what is really striking is the stand-out incompetence of the Tory election machine. From the not-so-A-list candidate, through the confused political message, to the daily appearance of the shifty, charlatan Tory chairman Grant Shapps, the Conservatives have blown it. The party is hollowed out and it shows. From the quiet, deep England of Eastleigh, Maria Hutchings is torching any chance of a majority Conservative government. And it is all marvellous to behold.
This article first appeared in the print edition of The Spectator magazine, dated 23 February 2013