Election in Benny Hill's town no joke for parties
Former Liberal Democrat leader Lord Paddy Ashdown passes a spoof image of prime minister David Cameron featured on a UKIP sponsored poster. photograph: matt cardy/getty Images
Byelection victory would give Lib Dems hope it can avoid destruction in 2015
Benny Hill started his first job in Eastleigh, working as a milkman on a horse-drawn float. The experience left such an impression that it led to the comedian’s No 1 single, Ernie, the Fastest Milkman in the West, over 40 years ago.
Ten years ago, some locals were upset after the local council named a new street after him – Benny Hill Close, even though the alternative was Cow Pat Lane. Now the close has become an attraction during the Eastleigh byelection.
Scores of canvassers from political parties, who have long since exhausted the patience of locals in the Hampshire town, have had photographs taken in front of the street sign, before posting them moments later on Twitter.
The result in the byelection – caused because Liberal Democrat MP Chris Huhne was forced to resign after he pleaded guilty last month to perverting the course of justice – will be known early on Friday morning.
And it could matter a great deal.
The Liberal Democrats had been ready for Huhne’s departure, calling the byelection within days of his guilty plea. The move caught the Conservatives unawares, and they have struggled since to ignite their campaign.
The Liberal Democrats appeared to suffer little from Huhne’s disgrace, but the controversy over charges senior Liberal Democrats figures ignored allegations that the party’s former chief executive, Lord Chris Rennard, had groped aspirant party candidates has hurt.
In summary, the Liberal Democrats leadership knew in 2008 of rumours about Rennard. They spoke to him about them, and, soon after, he stood down, ostensibly on health grounds.
However, alleged victims went on record after years of refusing to do so when they saw him making a comeback.
The story has become a media storm in the UK, but the impact it is making on voters is far less clear, particularly since few knew anything about Rennard, even if he was key to the Liberal Democrats’ byelection successes in the past.
Today, few want to be held to a prediction on Eastleigh. Victory there, even if it is hardly a typical constituency for the Liberal Democrats, would offer hope to the junior coalition partner that it can avoid destruction in 2015.
A defeat, on the other hand, would place party leader and deputy prime minister Nick Clegg in serious jeopardy, particularly if it led others with knowledge of who knew what about Rennard and when to come forward.
Matters are scarcely less easy for the prime minister, David Cameron.
Eastleigh, once a Conservative heartland before a famous 1994 byelection win for the Liberal Democrats, is exactly the sort of place that Cameron must win if a majority is to be secured two years from now.
However, his candidate, Maria Hutchings, has performed poorly, while the party has been shy of activists on the ground. Indeed, there is now a danger that the Conservatives could come third when ballots are counted.
Labour, on the other hand, has avoided attention; its candidate, John O’Farrell, is not seen locally as a serious campaigner, and has made little effort to be seen as such, tweeting, “Let’s all go to the pub” on the night he was selected to run.
Labour may never have won in Eastleigh regardless of who it selected, but it needs to send a message to the south of England that it is serious once more about campaigning in a region that was central to Tony Blair’s success in the late 1990s. In Eastleigh, this it has failed to do.
Much may depend on the UK Independence Party. In recent days, canvassers for its candidate, Diane James – who has performed solidly on the ground, have had pep in their step, believing that their anti-EU, anti-immigration message is striking home.
Even Conservative education secretary Michael Gove admits that UKIP “is hurting” his party’s chances. In 2010, UKIP won just 3.6 per cent of the vote in Eastleigh. If James does well, but does not win, then UKIP leader Nigel Farage may rue not running himself, as he considered doing.
For everyone involved, tonight could be a long drawn-out, perhaps even unpleasant affair in Eastleigh’s Fleming Park count centre. Jokes about Benny Hill and fast-running milkmen are unlikely to be appreciated.