The Post-Eastleigh Crossroads: Do the Tories Turn Left or Right?

If nothing else, the residents of Eastleigh have mastered the art of the unexpected. A by-election that was initially seen as a ruthless face-off between coalition partners saw the Liberal Democrats emerge triumphant and a surging UKIP relegated the Tories to third place. Significantly, this by-election foreshadows many similar contests expected in 2015 and was considered a must-win for both parties. But Conservative soul-searching will stem less from the defeat itself, rather from UKIP’s strong showing. The party stands at a crossroads, internally divided over two questions that will shape its 2015 campaign. Firstly, is UKIP attracting votes from protest or because of its policies? And secondly, does this mean victory requires a ‘true blue’ shift rightwards or yet more ‘modernisation’ to occupy the centre ground? The answers to both partly lie in why UKIP performed so well. Crucially UKIP took votes off the Lib Dems and Tories in roughly equal measure – both saw their vote fall by 14%. Despite Farage claiming UKIP won votes because of its “policy solutions” it seems improbable these attracted left-wing Europhile Lib Dem voters. More likely is that UKIP attracted those who originally voted for the Lib Dems in protest and those angered by Lib Dem compromises. The same is perhaps true for the Conservatives.

Of course, governments rarely do well in by-elections yet plenty of Conservatives will argue that their defeat stems from losing sight of their core values, for allowing Lib Dems too much influence and for prioritising unimportant ‘metropolitan’ causes (e.g. gay marriage). Their answer is to turn right and campaign more strongly on immigration, Europe and welfare-reform. The flaw in this argument is that this is essentially how they fought Eastleigh. Within the last few weeks Cameron pledged to hold a Europe referendum, unleashed anti-immigrant rhetoric and fielded a candidate with undeniably right-wing views – and the party lost votes.

So where does this leave the Tories? One important consolation is Labour’s abysmal performance. Despite the vote for both Coalition parties falling dramatically, the Labour vote increased by a paltry 0.22%. Although Labour never stood a serious chance of gaining the seat, it’s currently polling around 12% higher than the Tories, some 33% higher than the Lib Dems and the government is widely considered divided and incompetent. It was a perfect opportunity. Miliband’s pitch has always been that he could entice disillusioned Lib Dems, yet Labour failed to even attract a few protest votes. In the long term the leader most damaged by Eastleigh may well be Miliband rather than Cameron or Clegg.

Yet while Labour clearly hasn’t regained the trust of the electorate, neither have the Tories. It is hard to avoid the parallels between Eastleigh and the 2005 campaign where the focus was also on immigration and Europe. The solution then, as now, was modernisation. Under Cameron the focus was on moving to the political centre and on shedding the ‘nasty party’ image. But the financial crisis derailed this. In 2010, voters still saw the party as reactionary and ‘austerity politics’ allowed opponents of reforms and cuts to label them ideologically motivated and claim Conservatives only protect the rich.

Any socially liberal policies are claimed by the Lib Dems even when they’ve bipartisan support. Consequently voters are still unconvinced by the party’s supposed reformation. Even popular policies like welfare reform have a negative element – pitting ‘strivers’ against ‘skivers’. This is damaging because it associates negativity with the wider image of the party. Gay marriage or welfare policies may not directly win or lose votes but such issues shape how people perceive and trust a party. Of course, socially liberal policies won’t appeal to everyone (e.g. the party base) but unless the party can appeal to centrist and left-leaning voters a majority-winning coalition looks unreachable.

Despite the burden of incumbency, the Tories need to gain a lot of seats in 2015 for a working majority. It must provide a positive vision and agenda which can appeal to voters who would otherwise vote Labour or Liberal Democrat. Turning right offers only a dead end and electoral stagnation. The next election will be fought on economic grounds and, given that austerity is set to continue into the next parliament, optimistic economic giveaways are unlikely. Consequently the social agenda will be crucial in presenting the party as compassionate and modern. Immigrant-bashing, moaning about Brussels and chasing UKIP votes will not help finally convince floating voters that Conservatives care about them – nor that they can be trusted not to be nasty.