The story of this by-election is not UKIP or indeed, our own third place. We are a party in government and it would have been extraordinary not to have been trounced. UKIP were the main outlet for anyone who wanted to protest. No, the real story is the Liberal Democrat win, a victory that happened at a time when they were facing considerable pressure both locally and nationally.
I was Conservative candidate for Westmorland and Lonsdale and I write from experience. Coming up to polling day, the view was that on a bad day I would lose by 6,000 and on a good day scrape a win with a majority of 1-2,000. We could tell it wasn’t going to be a good day from the GOTV feedback; ‘I normally vote Conservative but Tim has worked so hard’ was a very common response from once solid Conservative voters, ‘Tim’ being Tim Farron, my Liberal Democrat opponent and incumbent MP. In the end I was resoundingly beaten, with the Liberal majority 12,000+. As a local reporter asked: ‘how does it feel seeing a once safe Conservative seat become a safe Liberal seat?. Funnily enough, it didn’t feel that great.
There are lots of reasons we lost and I am sure a non-local, ex-banker candidate was one of them. However, the main reason we lost was the sheer size and scope of the local Lib Dem machine and an extremely popular local MP. Kendal was one third of the vote in the General Election and, just as in Eastleigh, was 100% Liberal Democrat, with the Conservatives barely holding on in many of the hitherto very safe rural council seats. And just as in Eastleigh, Lib Dem dominance in Westmorland and Lonsdale started many years and at least a few general elections before 2010.
It is tempting when we suffer defeat, as we did yesterday, to tack right, to look at our leadership and conclude it wanting, to blame the candidate and so on. In fact any of these factors might play a part at any given time but whatever importance we might attach to them it is important not to ignore the elephant in the room, the strong local presence built up by the Liberals, so strong it was able to withstand a candidate who lied and cheated and a party leadership that stands accused of a sex-scandal cover-up.
The Lib Dems succeed at a national level because they spend years winning at a local level. When you are considered a natural party of government as we once were it is easy to become complacent, to only communicate with the electorate around election time, to leave the way open for a challenger willing to knock on every door and fight every local campaign. If we want a strategy for victory in Lib Dem seats, in SNP seats and against UKIP we need to present ourselves as the party that works hard for local people through the electoral cycle. We need to roll our sleeves up, take a multi-year view and start to win council seat by council seat.
It is vital we do so, not least because the days when the electorate voted for a different party in local elections but returned to us in a general election are fading, the fact that we have a coalition putting a question mark over the claim in 2010 ‘that only by voting Conservative can we get rid of Labour’.
We know we can win against the Lib Dems, witness Winchester, Hereford and Harrogate, winning against them when we are in opposition, when they have candidates retiring or mired in scandal, and when we have great candidates who dedicate all to winning. And we know we can win when we take a longer-term view and fight strong local campaigns across a number of years, as we are doing in Berwick-Upon-Tweed.
Today my heart goes out to Maria Hutchings. She and her family made a tremendous sacrifice moving to Eastleigh, not least the lengthy commute to work undertaken by her husband. She will feel tremendous guilt at losing and letting down her campaign team and the hopes of so many. I met Maria at a candidates’ training day once and was incredibly impressed by her dedication to Eastleigh and will to win. Her part in this loss is negligible. To win in Eastleigh will take years of hard work at a grass roots level and we will only do it with people like Maria, who are prepared to risk so much. I urge her not to give up on politics. Her day will come.