Voting is well underway in the Eastleigh by-election and weeks of crouching behind the sofa and slaloming politicians and their minions in the town centre is soon to come to an end. In a few hours we should know who the successor is to disgraced Lib Dem MP Chris Huhne.
This evening bookies still have Lib Dem as odds on favourite. The price is so short at Belfair as to indicate an 85% probability however close behind are the conservatives and sensationally Ukip. In fact all bookies now have Ukip a second favourite as Labour look out of the running at 100/1 and another bookmaker Paddy Power has even had the National Health Action party breathing down Labour’s neck at 80/1.
Ukip has finished second in its last two by-elections and the feeling among Ukippers is they could even win.
Local independent Danny Stupple comes in next at 200/1 and the best of the rest being fought between majority party TUSC, the Peace Party and the English Democrats leaving the rest of the filed fighting it out to avoid last place
Last night at an Ukip press conference Nigel Farage declared that the Polls had been flawed and had underestimated the surge of support towards Ukip whose own soundings indicated a victory for Dianne James was on the cards.
A smiling Dianne James told reporters that people were approaching activists on the street to pledge support.
On local activist told me that the office had dealt with an unprecedented 1400 membership enquiries in the least two weeks. Last week former Mayor Glyn Davies-Dear and ex lib Dem councillor Andy Moore both signed up and while the press conference was underway two students walked in off the street to sign.
Dianne James has uncompromising views on immigration and controversy over remarks she has regarding Romanian criminality and estimates of future Bulgarian immigration running into the millions have gained her widespread publicity.
Her performance at the at the 38 Degrees hustings this week provoked the strongest reaction from the crowd alternately drawing gasps, boo’s and cheer’s – and even a couple of shouts of ‘racist’ – after she claimed that crime was linked to East European immigration and that ‘foreigners’ were pushing British people to the back of the queue.
James seems to have an ability to dramatically polarise an audience’s views on immigration enthusing some while enraging others.
I spoke to a voter after the hustings, Glen who said he found James remarks ‘very worrying’ as he is married to a Romanian and his children are half Romanian. He told me he accepted there was a need for immigration controls – his problem was with the rhetoric – which he thought could cause resentment towards his family. He told me the family had moved to Eastleigh from Essex because he thought it was a tolerant place
“The community is a tolerant community and I resent the fact that she has come from outside the county and if she continues to use language like that she will stir up people’s feelings”
Glen told me he was so worried that if Ms James won he would consider moving away.
At the press conference I was able to ask Dianne James for a reaction to Glen’s concerns:
“Ukip doesn’t hate the Eu we have no intention of giving a whole load of people who are already here the’ red card’. What we are saying is enough is enough and we do need a really well controlled system we need process and procedure and we need a god UK border agency a with necessary control to make entry to this country a level playing field.”
Despite the Ukip surge Liberal Democrat Mike Thornton is still odds on with bookies to win. It is impossible to find anyone with a bad word to say about Thornton (and the national pres have tried -they certainly rang Eastleigh News up) but questions have been raised about his suitability as an MP. He lacks the gravitas Charisma and silky public speaking skills of former MP Chris Huhne.
Huhne had a practised ‘power smile’ he could turn on when required Thornton can only at best raise a grimace
Thornton’s performance on the hustings has been at best variable sometimes appearing nervous and vague,at times even bumbling.
He has been described as ‘Ordinary’,’ boring’, ‘voice like a speaking clock’ and a photo of him at council meeting with his eyes apparently closed appeared in the press.
Thornton appeared a trifle overawed by meeting the Party Leader Nick Clegg at the Ageas Bowl and seemed mesmerised like he couldn’t believe this was happening to him.
You know how it is – you go to bed a borough councillor then when you wake you have been handed a £65k pa safe seat and are now rubbing shoulders with the deputy Prime minister!
Despite the unfavorable comparison with Chris Huhne many voters (this one included) grew tired of Mr. Huhne’s PR antics and yearned for someone a bit more ordinary and unexciting but also honest and hardworking.
Mike has indicated he believes party conference is where policy should be debated and he in Parliament he would vote on party lines – he even said he would vote in favour of same sex marriage although it conflicted with these beliefs as a Christian.
It’s clear from the polls that voters haven’t been put off by the Huhne case or the allegations surrounding Lord Rennard and are still prepared to back Lib Dems for as long as they get low council tax. Huhne was right to think he could get re-elected and there have been suggestions that Thornton could be just a seat warmer till 2015 in anticipation of the return of a rehabilitated an rejuvenated Mr Huhne.
Interestingly while Maria Hutchings and John O’Farrell both turned down invitations to attack Chris Huhne and local Lib Dem leader Keith House even defended the former MP.
It was Lib Dem Mike Thornton who angrily called on Huhne to apologise to the people of Eastleigh while he was appearing on the Radio 5 debate.
For most of the election Thornton’s closest challenger has been Conservative Maria Hutchings.
Hutchings previously contested the seat in 2010 when she increased the Tory vote. A search through Eastleigh News will show she has been active in many local issues lining up with politicians of all shades to oppose development on green spaces. She has also championed a number of other local good causes firmly embedding herself in the community.
Although she may have wanted to campaign on her track record as a local campaigner on local issues things went awry early on as the National media made it clear their audience weren’t interested in reading about Boorley Green or Leigh Road rec.
No sooner had her launch started, Five minutes and 50 yards in it struck an iceberg in the form of C4 political journalist Michel Crick, the personal nemesis of Council Leader Keith House. Crick tackled her not about land at Woodhouse Lane – but about Gay Marriage and …House of Lords reform!
Having successfully dealt with that worse was to follow minutes later she was cornered in Poppins Cafe and asked to account for remarks made in 2005 over immigrants and asylum seekers.
Hutchings campaign was being run by central office and it would appear – although denied – that someone took a decision to shield her from hostile reporting or possibly it was decided that her biggest asset – plain speaking – was a liability. After that she was left to hover in the background while a serious off big gun speakers the PM, the Chancellor, Boris fielded the ‘difficult’ questions. She failed to appear at two hustings which only fuelled stories she was being tightly controlled.
In the community hustings she did appear in she had to use time to defend herself over another quote in which she appeared to slate state education and she also took time to clobber Mike Thornton over his support for the local plan while claiming to defend greenspaces.
The last hustings she appeared at ended in uproar with lots of shouting from all sides as she simultaneously went for Mike Thornton over Woodhouse Lane while trying to deflect hecklers in the audience who were demanding to know where she would place housing.
All of this will make little difference to her core supporters who adore her, or the supporters of causes she has helped who will probably return the favour.
Both the Lib Dems and the Conservatives have a large core support so things could be as tight as they were in 2005 when only 500 votes separated the winner but with a surge in support for Ukip we could see the seat transformed into a three way marginal.
I am of course discounting Labour who are so far back in the polls and the bookies affections that a win does not seem likely.
John O’Farrell is a capable candidate, an articulate and intelligent man who has provided the belly laughs in this campaign with his quips. The resources Labour has poured into the town is unprecedented for them but they were always going to have to come from a distant third anyway and the publication of some tasteless comments O’Farrell had made previously, many years ago, over the Brighton Bombing and the Falkland Islands damaged his chances in a town where there is still a deep vein of working class patriotism which Ukip have exploited to Labours cost. I happened to be in Eastleigh when O’Farrell and his placard waving entourage swept past to shouts of ‘Traitor’ from one passerby.
O’Farrell has identified the problems Eastleigh faces as national issues over falling standards of living and he says only Labour has the policies that could fix them but it is local issues that have dominated the hustings leading O’Farrell to brand the contest a ‘faux council election’.
The party have flooded the town with activists – 50 MPs visited yesterday – but all the feedback from polls suggest they are in a tussle for third place with Ukip or the Tories.
It was expected that Labour would benefit from the 2o,00 odd labour swing voters who won it for Huhne in 2010 swinging back, but it seems a lot of those votes – judging from the people I have spoken to – have been hoovered up by Ukip.
A socialist alternative to Labour is provided by the Trade Union and Socialist Coalition Candidate Daz Proctor. TUSC claim they are a majority party as they are backed by 80,000 RMT union members and because they represent the 99%.
Their problem has been getting the message out to t he 99%.Seafarer Daz was unavailable for campaigning until six days ago as he was away at sea and a public meeting that was called by TUSC on Tuesday clashed with a hustings.
Daz has been realistic about his chances but sees this as a chance to establish them in Eastleigh. If the Labour vote collapses tonight and they are pushed as predicted into fourth they may abandon the town where already many of the poorest – their natural constituency – do not vote.
TUSC say they are the only party who are totally opposed to cuts believing public spending on welfare and services can be funded through tax justice measures – forcing corporations like Starbucks to pay their fair share and by scrapping Trident.
The National Health Action Party have a local candidate in Dr Iain MacLennan – the party is opposed to the privatisation of the NHS which they see as the single most important issue facing the UK.
They blame the dismantling of the health service to neglect by all the major parties and are bound to pick up support from Health workers who may have otherwise voted Labour.
Danny Stupple is a local fair Oak businessman from Fair Oak standing as an independent. He promises to bring a ‘local voice to the national stage’. A devout Christian his main reason for standing is to protest at the proposal to introduce legislation for same sex marriage – which he says is unchristian and undemocratic. He says his main motivation is his love of Eastleigh.
He is well known in his local community as a governor of Wyvern School and through his involvement in community projects like the basics bank and is expected to finish well ahead of other minority candidates – perhaps a seat on the Parish Council beckons?
The English Democrats are also looking to improve on their 2010 showing with Micheal Walter. The believe that the English have been discriminated against and wan ta devolved English Parliament, free prescriptions and university education as is enjoyed by citizens of Scotland and Wales.
Colin Bex of the Wessex regionalists has been conducting a one man campaign for the introduction of a system of local government based on the ancient Wessex regions. He proposes a number of fiscal measures including an end to fiat currency. Unfortunately at Hustings – lack of time has prevented him from expanding on his idea for monetary reform and those interested could do well to invest in some time with him down the pub
Eastleigh News will be tweeting live from the Count from 10 pm!