The Eastleigh by-election to replace Chris Huhne last Thursday was won by the Liberal Democrats. The shock was UKIP coming second with the Conservatives and Labour in third and fourth places respectively.
Was this just a typical by-election result, not likely to be repeated at the 2015 General Election, or is there another interpretation?
The Liberal Democrat victory was no surprise. Although the seat was formerly a Conservative seat, the Liberal Democrats are now well entrenched. They control every seat in the Borough Council and the County Council within the Parliamentary Constituency boundaries. They are well organised locally, have a strong brand and are seen to be “doing a good job around here”.
It is the UKIP vote that is generating debate. Should it be seen as a one-off protest or a significant shift in political loyalties equivalent to the 25% vote for the Italian Five Star Movement? At least one commentator has suggested this, arguing that the three major parties competing for the centre ground of politics denies serious left and right wing voters a genuine choice. UKIP may never form a Government but voting for them now is a way of rejecting the political establishment.
A post by-election poll does go some way to supporting the protest thesis. 22% of those voting Conservative and 19% voting Lib Dem in 2010 voted for UKIP in Eastleigh. Such issues as Europe, immigration, jobs and the economy are cited as the reasons for disaffection. No mention was made of the Marriage (Same-Sex Couples) Bill as a factor but previous resignations suggest that it is an issue for Conservatives who think that in his drive to modernise the party and lose its ‘nasty’ image the Prime Minister has lost touch with traditional Conservative family values.
No doubt Mr Cameron would respond that under his leadership an In/Out referendum on Europe has been promised, immigration reduced by a third, crime fallen by 10%, the deficit cut by 25% and unemployment down from 8.3% to 7.5%. The statistics do not always reflect how people feel. There are more people in work than ever but 974,000 16-24 year olds are unemployed, including graduates who feel that they have legitimate grounds for protest. The cost of living is an issue in a period of austerity with inflation at 2.7% and wages not keeping pace.
To win in 2015 the Conservatives have to trigger growth in the economy, creating jobs, especially for those young people. They have also to reconnect with traditional supporters alienated from their liberalising leaders. For Labour leaders the challenge is to articulate economic policy without more borrowing and public spending that increases the deficit and further downgrades of our credit status.
Christians have a contribution to make in any debate about social and political values which makes this an opportune moment for those interested in politics to join one of the parties and participate. They will find Christians already there welcoming much needed ‘salt and light’ reinforcements.