What are the historical parallels for the Liberal Democrats’ holding Eastleigh under the adverse conditions of yesterday’s by-election?
The last time that the Liberal Party retained a seat at a contested by-election while the party was in government was in Caernarvon Boroughs in 1945, after David Lloyd George left the House of Commons. Lloyd George’s successor, David Seaborne Davies lost the seat at the next general election, just 91 days later. The LibDem victor at Eastleigh, Mike Thornton should be guaranteed at least two years’ tenure, before he has to face a re-contest.
The Eastleigh by-election took place on February 28th, the exact anniversary of the last time that the Liberals lost a seat at a by-election. This was in 1957 in Carmarthen when former-Liberal and daughter of David Lloyd George, Megan, won the seat from the Liberals as the Labour candidate. At Eastleigh the LibDems avoided that fate. If there are any parallels with that by-election it is with the Conservative Party at Eastleigh, which was beaten by one of its former members, the Ukip candidate, Diane James.In terms of press reaction, a comparable by-election was in Inverness in 1954. The Liberals came a close second at a time when many people had written off the party’s prospects. The parallel here is that the press more or less overlooked the by-election’s significance, showing that the Liberal Party was rising from its moribund state. It will be around 26 hours after the Eastleigh result when the newspapers print their comments and by then the focus will almost certainly have shifted from the LibDems to Ukip and the Conservatives.
In terms of circumstances, Eastleigh has more parallels with the Liberals’ performance in the 1962 Montgomeryshire by-election caused by the death of former party leader, Clement Davies. Davies, who had held the seat since 1929, had served as party leader through the party’s darkest years from 1945 to 1956. Davies, despite alcoholism and personal tragedies (three of his four children died at the age of 24), had survived until the age of 78. Emlyn Hooson won the by-election resulting from Davies’s death and held the seat at the following five general elections, demonstrating the party’s tenacity and local roots. (Emlyn Hooson wrote the foreword to my biography of Clement Davies).
Only time will tell which parallel fits the circumstances best, but if it turns out to be Montgomeryshire, it will be barely remembered – at least as far as the LibDems are concerned. For Ukip and the Conservatives it may be a different matter.