If 2015 brings the Lib Dems a blip rather than a near-death, it will be due to victories in seats like Eastleigh. In a microcosm of 2015’s challenges, it is a seat in which the Lib Dems have developed their presence, both at council and Westminster level, over a long period; it is in the south; and the main electoral challenge will come from Conservatives, who are second in 38 of the Lib Dems’ 57 seats.
The Eastleigh by-election suggests that strong local links will underpin Lib Dems’ campaigns in these seats. Mike Thornton, their candidate, has lived in the constituency for 19 years and been a parish and borough councillor since 2007: ties that no other major candidates can match. “These are my friends and neighbours so I can represent them a lot better than someone who’s parachuted in from elsewhere.” This seems to be a dig at Maria Hutchings, a Cameron ‘A-lister’, who moved to the area when nominated Tory candidate before the 2010 general election.
Eastleigh also presents wider lessons for the Lib Dems’ anti-Tory strategy in 2015. If the Conservatives nominate social conservatives like Hutchings (who opposes gay marriage and wants to reduce the abortion limit to 10 weeks), this will be invoked as evidence of the Tories’ ‘Tea Party tendency’. Similarly, Lib Dems are reportedly preparing a list of “loony” Tory ideas that they have vetoed in government to show the electorate in 2015.
The aim of the strategy is to prevent left-leaning voters who supported the Lib Dems in 2010 to flock to Labour. Thornton counters the argument that a vote for the Lib Dems in Eastleigh is still one for the coalition by saying a Lib Dem victory would help the party say “say ‘Don’t Muck Us About’” to the Conservatives for the remaining two years.
Labour may hope that Eastleigh marks the birth of a “One Nation Labour Party – south as well as north” but they will not seriously compete for the seat. Trying to prevent Lib Dems deserting to Labour, Thornton defines the race as “our team against the Conservatives”. John O'Farrell’s candidacy is derided as that of a man who’s “come down just to have some fun and enjoy himself”.
Lib Dems - now and in 2015 - might argue that they are in politics for the longer haul.