John Harris

Journalist & Author

Eastleigh welcomes the Hamiltons to town

Disgraced former Tory minister Neil Hamilton and his ‘lovely’ wife Christine spent the day campaigning on behalf of Ukip

For Jenny Martin, a 65-year-old resident of the West End area of Eastleigh, a quiet weekday afternoon has just taken a rather strange turn. A small scrum of photographers has gathered at the end of her drive, and her doorbell has just been rung by the former Conservative minister Neil Hamilton, here for the day with his wife, Christine.

To some people, the Hamiltons may still be a byword for corruption and disgrace. But for the UK Independence party, they are today’s star turn: he dressed in a deerstalker hat and country-gent green jacket, she in blue jeans and red suede loafers. Ukip members and campaigners since 2011 (the male half of the partnership also serves on the party’s national executive committee), they talk of political correctness, and David Cameron’s recent policy shifts on Europe – and they have the benefit of being instantly recognisable, to some people at least.

“I know who you are,” says Mrs Martin slowly moving her eyes from husband to wife. “And I know who you are.” Which party she might vote for, though, remains a mystery: she says she’s made up her mind, and is keeping it to herself. But what she later tells me about her visitors suggests she is at least sympathetic to their cause: “I think Christine’s a lovely lady, I really do.”

With accusations about the Lib Dems’ Lord Rennard once again putting alleged political scandal in the headlines, sending these two out might seem an odd move. But Ukip’s campaigners have the straight-backed confidence of people who know what they’re doing. 10 days ago, William Hill put their chances of winning at 25-1; now, they’re down to 8-1, with some bookmakers narrowing the numbers even further. One thing is just about certain: Ukip will finish well ahead of the newly “one nation” Labour party, whose deep angst about the south of England looks likely to be deepened by the Eastleigh result.

Some of this is down to Ukip’s candidate, Diane James: a smart, apparently unflappable operator who you might easily mistake for an A-list Tory candidate, something not helped by the gauche, accident-prone reputation of the Conservatives’ Maria Hutchings. A lot of the party’s appeal is probably traceable to their simple, bullet-point platform – and in particular, their endlessly-reiterated opposition to”open-door immigration”. There is also a sense of the party bonding with voters thanks to its line on “saving manufacturing jobs in key industries”, which chimes with local anger about the end of production at Ford’s nearby Southampton works, the British home of the iconic Transit van.

Even if the Ukip insurgency is by far the most interesting aspect of the Eastleigh story, the prize remains set to go to one of the coalition parties, and recent polling suggests that the result could go either way. If the Lib Dems hold on to the seat, their fear about possible wipeout in 2015 will abate, and Nick Clegg will affect to be a man renewed and emboldened – while the Tories’ current angst will deepen.

If the Tories snatch it, rumblings of disaffection about David Cameron will die down, and it will be his coalition partners who may go into a tailspin. For both parties, the prospect of the Eastleigh result marking a fresh start is complicated by a tangle of different irritants: for the Lib Dems, the ongoing Rennard affair; for the Tories, the Ukip factor (the idea that Cameron’s big Europe speech might have put them back in their box now looks fanciful, to say the least); and for both, the parlous state of the economy, something highlighted by the pinched, rather forlorn atmosphere of Eastleigh’s town centre.

They – and Labour – should also worry about a feeling that can be picked up all over this constituency: that the tetchy disconnection from politics that went nuclear with the expenses crisis, was probably perpetuated by the very public fall of Chris Huhne, and shows no signs of going away, least of all round here.

Indeed, this well-funded, frantic contest may have made things even worse. In two days I spend in Eastleigh, every local person I speak to complains of mountains of leaflets, intrusive cold-calling, and bumptious Westminster types crowding their streets. The result is a weird kind of dissonance: blogs and op-ed pieces written in London salivate over “the most important byelection in 30 years” and claim – with some justification – that its outcome will have profound consequences for the two coalition parties, while most locals view it all with a sullen detachment. Many will vote, but probably out of duty rather than any obvious enthusiasm. All told, the contest has the air of one of those 70s football matches played out in ankle-deep mud and horizontal rain: a test not of flair or skill, but persistence, brute strength, and the avoidance of accident.

“It’s all just overkill,” says David Wentworth, a 46-year-old storeman who works for a local electrical company, and talks to me outside Eastleigh’s branch of Sainsbury’s. He voted for the Lib Dems in 2010, but says that the Huhne story is likely to push him elsewhere. “He should have admitted to what he did much earlier,” he says. “These people are meant to be looked up to, aren’t they? But it just seems like one more thing, like expenses and all that.” He says he is aware of the Rennard story, but that if any of it is true, it will merely confirm his scepticism about politics, rather than telling him anything new. And he’s seriously considering voting for Ukip, thanks partly to their emphasis on “trying to stop so many people coming into the country”. “It’s not being racial or anything like that,” he says, “it’s to do with everything being so overstretched.”

Round the corner is the Lib Dems’ campaign HQ, where much of the local mountain of leaflets originates. Stepping inside, what I’m confronted with is not testament to organisational ability, but a collective drive to prove that the party is still alive. Taped to the reception desk is an A4 flyer entitled We Need Your Bed, appealing for accommodation needed by visiting activists. The first person I meet is 20-year-old Sarah Harding, a physics undergraduate from Manchester who initially came here for four days, but was so enthralled by what she found that she is still here two weeks later. She talks to me over the loud click-clack of printing machines, and the chatter of around 40 campaigners, working the phones – as befits an operation located on a trading estate, this is truly industrial electioneering. The Lib Dems, of course, are more dug in here than just about anywhere else in the country. The constituency contains 40 of the 44 seats for Eastleigh borough council, and every last one is Lib Dem-held.

Moreover, it may be some token of the unlikely magic worked by local activists that their grip on power has actually strengthened while their national polling numbers have tumbled. In that sense, the workmanlike aura of their candidate, borough councillor Mike Thornton, may be all part of the point: there is something very defiant and anti-metropolitan about their campaign, and his lack of political stardust fits with its prevailing mood.

What is also striking is the relative shortage in the Lib Dems’ propaganda of big national themes. The contortions of coalition presumably rule them out – so instead, they are going for archetypal Lib Dem pavement politics: endless pushing of the work done by the Borough Council, and such matters of local controversy as traffic bottlenecks and “Conservative gravel pits”.

When we meet, Thornton is canvassing in Eastleigh town centre in the boisterous company of Paddy Ashdown, who will be in charge of the Lib Dems’ national campaign in 2015. The latter is therefore the perfect person to answer an interesting question: if the Lib Dems are going to have the fight of their lives in two years’ time, is Eastleigh an indicator of the tactics they’ll use? By way of going most of the way to answering “yes”, Ashdown extols the wonders of “a local base”and “a hard record of work”. And he goes on: “The truth is, what makes this winnable for us is the fact that we’ve got a candidate who doesn’t have to make promises, because he can stand on his record. That’s really important, and it applies elsewhere as well.”

What of the Rennard affair, and its possible effect on the Lib Dems’ chances? “Would you prefer not to see that? Obviously, you would. But I’ve just been campaigning in the centre of town, and it never came up.”

He then sounds a little more equivocal. “I don’t say it won’t have an effect – it could do. I don’t know what effect that will be. But my guess is, most people round here will be saying, What kind of MP do I want?” And then the L-word, again. “Locally.”

An hour later, I meet the Tories’ Hutchings. door-knocking in West End in the company of the transport secretary, Patrick McLoughlin.

Her campaign has been a synthesis of local themes (though it’s obviously a planning rather than a parliamentary matter, she is opposed to plans for 1,400 new homes on the edge of the verdant village of Botley, lately approved by the Lib Dem council), and such issues as immigration and the EU, seemingly chosen to try and neutralise the threat from Ukip. After three weeks of campaigning, she appears to have passed the point where she can answer questions with much more than awkward boilerplate, but I have to ask: are Diane James and the Farage army a worry?

Her party, she says, has “got a strong case to make on immigration”, “policies on sham marriages and immigration” and the recent cut in the EU budget.

“The thing with Ukip is that a vote for them is actually going to mean a vote for the Liberal Democrat MP [sic] who wants more immigration, and to be part of a federal Europe.”

So she takes Ukip seriously as opponents? Her face flashes with the merest hint of anxiety. “I take everybody seriously as opponents, because … [pause] … on the day it’s going to be the people of Eastleigh who decide who they want.”

For everybody’s sake, it is perhaps time that all this was over. Back in the town centre, having been accosted by the candidate from the National Health Action party, I seek peace and quiet in the obligatory branch of Costa Coffee. One of the two baristas on duty is called Maria, and she has spent the last three weeks serving endless politicians, aides and activists. “Hundreds of them,” she says. “And I’m sick of it.” Like every other local I meet, she mentions cold calls, piles of leaflets, and in-person visits. “I don’t bother answering the door any more,” she says, just as another canvassing team trudges in for coffee. “I can’t be arsed.” © 2013 Guardian News and Media Limited or its affiliated companies. All rights reserved. | Use of this content is subject to our Terms & Conditions | More Feeds

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