Oppositions don’t win elections. Governments, so received wisdom goes, lose. When the electorate sent Gordon Brown and Labour packing in 2010, neither Opposition party had won. Two years on, the voters of Eastleigh have repeated that message, as the Liberal Democrats hold the seat, albeit with a 14 per cent drop in their share of the vote since 2010.
Their raison d’etre is as a party of opposition, not government. Whether Eastleigh or Tyneside, Cambridge or Chester, the story across the country is the same. Lib Dems are bolstered by the local council ‘machine’. By the pavement politics of bin collections and by cramming ever more housing into their crowded fiefdoms, along with the council tax and votes this brings, they will probably remain what and where they are. The party nationally may have contaminated the politics of the world’s fifth largest economy with an obsessive spendthrift localism: nonetheless they continue to attract the disaffected left, the veggie vote, the intelligentsia and the well-heeled, north as well as south. Quite simply, they are there to oppose according to the mood, or mode, of the moment.
For the Conservatives, who shadowed Blairite modernisation before 2010, matters are different. Modernisation was rammed down the throat of old Labour; social, cultural, and societal boundaries recast; and the electorate obliged to worship at the graven image of ‘Cool’ Britannia.
The Conservative leadership has found it congenial to prolong this Blairite programme, but not the voters. Support for UKIP, the one party known to oppose such projects, has risen dramatically. They have now beaten the Conservatives and come second in Eastleigh. But Europe, modernisation, gerrymandering, immigration and jobs are a symptom of a legacy of failure, of both opposition and government. They are the result of Mr Brown’s vandalisation of the UK economy, when he took an axe to economic and fiscal liberalism and grew, not the economy, but the state, to serve the left’s ‘new’ Britain. That, however, is not for the Tories. As the party of government, in waiting or reality, their task is not to be cool, but to be effective.