The media, Twitter and the political blogosphere have been saturated with coverage of the Eastleigh by-election over the past couple of weeks. In fact the only thing more covered in political ‘insight’ over all colours and none than these outlets are the doorsteps of the besieged Hampshire town unlucky enough to have found itself the centre of quite so much attention for the dubious honour of having a criminal former MP.
With this piece I am, in my own small way, going add to the saturation of ‘insight’ into Eastleigh but from a slightly different direction. Whilst the media may be salivating over scandals, polls and which big guns have been rolled in to help their respective party causes, there is one group of people who are widely ignored but absolutely crucial to getting the electoral message out to voters. Particularly in by-elections, where the stakes are higher and the spotlight brighter, scores of young activists from the youth and student wings of all parties descend upon constituencies where they are depended upon as a vital message-distributing mechanism. But what is it like for them? How do they feel about things? How appreciative are constituency organisers and how do they see things going tomorrow? I invited a young activist from each of the four main parties as well as an independent young political blogger to give me their perspective on all things Eastleigh and beyond.
Here’s what Stephen Goodall for Labour, Andrew Knight for the Conservatives, Greg Foster for the Liberal Democrats and Harry Randle for UKIP along with Caspian Conran from the JWS Politics blog had to say.
So what exactly is the importance of young activists to political parties at election time and how are they welcomed at their respective HQs? Well Caspian Conran points out that ‘Young activists are crucially important to parties’ success in elections, especially by-elections which tend to be very labour-intensive. Whilst party membership is quite even across the age demographic those most active members are the young and the retired’. So there’s a danger that young activists can be seen simple as paper delivering machines? Andrew Knight concedes that is a risk. He says that ‘Obviously, [the local party] were in need of many people to help campaign and having plenty of young people is a huge bonus as we can cover ground more quickly [that that] there was a risk of creating an atmosphere where young activists were seen as leaflet fodder for the campaign team, which is too often taken the case in the Conservative Party’. However, he goes on to tell me that being ‘thanked directly by email just 24 hours after we left Eastleigh does make it seem as if our efforts were appreciated’.
Greg Foster from Liberal Youth echoes Andrew’s point that local parties need, more than anything, bodies to mobilise. He says of LY’s volunteers, ‘Every one of us is a few more leaflets delivered, doors knocked, envelopes stuffed. With the volume going out in this election they really so need every single body they can get’. Stephen Goodall from Labour Students, from whom Eastleigh is his home constituency, says the Labour Party have fully embraced the vibrancy of youth down on the south coast. ‘Young Labour activists and Labour students are having an enormous impact on the by-election campaign with coach loads of students arriving each and every day in Eastleigh, working in partnership with the dynamic force of Hampshire and Isle of Wight Young Labour’, he told me. He went on to say that ‘The impact of Young Labour and Labour students can be seen directly in the team running the campaign, with the average age being 24’.
Young activists and campaigners certainly seem to form the beating heart of the efforts at Eastleigh Constituency Labour Party but how do the offices of the other parties welcome their eager student volunteers? Andrew Knight says Conservative Future members ‘were welcomed in by HQ and the team running the show in Eastleigh’ adding that ‘Once the CF battle bus had arrived, HQ had exploded with life, lots of people buzzing around and many people were raring to go, which is all you look for really’. Greg Foster says that Mike Thornton’s campaign have welcomed any and all young volunteers to the constituency and that when the Liberal Democrat message is delivered on the doorsteps by Liberal Youth members it goes down ‘Very well’ and that ‘people are generally receptive’. Responding to the idea that the changes to tuition fees are a constant albatross around the neck of young Lib Dem activists, Greg says that ‘Occasionally [we] get snide comments about fees that are easily dealt with by explaining the new system.’.
Is it not the case, though, that such political fervour is a rarity among the youth of today’s Britain who feel totally turned off by the whole system? Caspian Conran from JWS Politics doesn’t entirely agree. He says that ‘Young people are increasingly disillusioned with the political process, no one can deny that. However young people are some of the most interested in politics generally. From moral issues about gay marriage to foreign affairs, young people are the most outspoken and opinionated out of all age demographics’. He goes on to add that ‘Social media is allowing young people to access and express political opinions without the conventional political process. I believe that young people are very interested in politics however have unfortunately lost faith in the political class and political process we have in the U.K. and thus are turning instead to other political outlets such as Twitter’.
The representatives of both UKIP and Labour think that their policies are resonating well with young people nationally. Harry Randle, for UKIP, says that he thinks what young people see in his party is ‘A new type of party that really offers something different. Prospects for a Britain outside of the EU means less competition for University places from foreign students. It also means more prospects for part time jobs for teenaged 16 and above. Eastern European citizens have devalued the proud jobs many lower paid citizens hold British citizens hold’.
Stephen Goodall thinks that it’s Labour whose policies are most appealing to young voters. He highlights the ‘many young people for instance benefiting from the introduction of the living wage in Labour run authorities’ and that young voters will be put off the Liberal Democrats because of the fee changes ‘which have done much to damage social mobility and put a cap on aspiration for the many gifted and talented young people in Eastleigh’. He also highlights ‘Ed Miliband’s emphasis on vocational education with the proposed launch of the Tech Bacc’ as being particularly appealing to young voters.
So if the young are switched on and all four main parties are vying for their votes, what about extending the franchise. I put the question of votes at sixteen to Caspian Conran. He says that ‘Any arbitrary cap on the franchise is wrong. Many politically aware fall below the line whilst many above the arbitrary line have no political interest at all and are arguably not fully aware of the importance which voting entails’. He goes on to say ‘I believe in no tax without representation. So whenever someone starts paying tax and National Insurance, they should be given the vote. For our young apprentices this may be as young as 14 and indeed for our university graduates, who have never experienced the benefits of hard work and just reward, this may be as high as 21’.
The Coalition certainly means that all parties are now in uncharted waters when it comes to by-elections and inter-party politics. So what impact do our activists think this is having on voters? Greg Foster says it’s not making the Liberal Democrats shy away from talking about their national role as a party of government. He says of the campaign that ‘it isn’t just being fought on local issues, there’s lots of national message too. We’re using our local record of competence, but it’s not the only tool in our messaging arsenal’. He goes on add that ‘it’s weakening the Labour squeeze some, but the Tories seem to be suffering most because of the coalition’. So what does our man from Conservative Future think? I think it has made it a lot harder politically because both parties are fighting with a similar set of successful policies which they want to take credit for. It is especially difficult because neither party is particularly popular at the moment and it has already depressed voter engagement’, Andrew says. But what about the two Government parties tearing each other to pieces? Well Andrew says he hasn’t seen much of that, ‘Personally I think the issue has been dealt with as well as it could have been, especially as Labour were hoping that the coalition parties would tear each other apart, which hasn’t really happened despite a few small attack campaigns flying around from both sides’.
Labour and UKIP, however, find themselves perhaps unlikely bedfellows in suggesting that the tide is turning away from the Coalition parties. Stephen says that ‘The voters feel betrayed by both coalition parties in particular the Liberal Democrats who have broken major manifesto pledges, warning about the Conservative VAT bombshell and then voting to raise VAT, committing to abolish tuition fees and then trebling them to £9,000 and this is the same story with the Conservatives who pledged to recruit 3,000 more midwives which they reversed on and have failed on every single major policy test from reducing net migration to deficit reduction’.
Harry Randle rejects the idea that UKIP’s encouraging polling is just a reflection of them taking the Liberal Democrats’ former position of by-election protest vote. He says that that’s not the case ‘at all. The manifesto differences between the lib Dems and UKIPs are very different. I’ve always said what’s the point in voting for a lib Dems they are useless. They don’t offer anything different. If you look at UKIPs manifesto it’s clear they are serious when it comes to domestic and foreign affairs’.
Neither does he think that the party is being bolstered simply by votes from disillusioned Tories. He says that while UKIP ‘Obviously have disgruntled voters’ that they have also ‘attracted support from all over the political spectrum. From the Old Labour left and from many voters not in favour of the big two’s policies. I the Conservatives have let down millions of voters by not fulfilling policies they promised in their 2010 manifesto’.
Instead, Harry thinks UKIP are making serious inroads that will see them return a number of MPs in 2015. He says that this is a time ‘in British politics when people are waking up to the dangers affecting our society’ adding that people are turning to UKIP because they ‘don’t believe in the lib Dems or conservatives not to mention labour! People are starting to wake up and seeing the effect of voting for people that have an interest in Britain. Not just people that only have an interest in their careers’.
Caspian Conran, the independent voice in this debate, is less sure. He told me that ‘UKIP are riding on the back of simple bigoted messages: all our problems are the fault of the EU. This is of course ludicrous. However to those most easily influenced , our young voters, these simplistic messages are gaining traction. However upon closer scrutiny UKIP’s messages fall apart, whether it be immigration or economics: one minute arguing for more cuts the next for less’.
Every young activist I have spoken to said the atmosphere at all of the party HQ is Eastleigh is good and that everyone on all sides is fired up for a win. So the million pound question is this- who is going to win Eastleigh?
Andrew Knight from Conservative Future said this – ‘Now, I want to say Maria Hutchings and the past week has proved that this election is definitely not over, however, I expect that the Lib Dems will probably scrape a win. It is looking likely that Labour will underperform (which is seriously damaging for the ‘One Nation’ message) and the UKIP threat hasn’t been neutralised despite a more socially conservative candidate. Unfortunately for Maria, that is the exact opposite to what was required for her to win in Eastleigh’ adding that ‘It is probably going to raise more questions of the leadership at CCHQ, maybe unfairly, if it does go the wrong way’.
Stephen Goodall, who knows the constituency better than most, thinks his party could still have a chance – ‘It is difficult to pin down who will win on Thursday, currently the largest camp in Eastleigh are the don’t knows and it’s Labour’s job to convince those who are disillusioned and undecided to put their faith in a One Nation Labour Party committed to the values of community and social justice which the people of Eastleigh share too’.
Liberal Youth’s Greg Foster doesn’t want to stick his neck out too far telling me that ‘It really is too close to call. Based on my door knocking I’d say we have the edge, but it’s a game of turnout now’.
Harry Randle, however, thinks this may well truly turn into a three horse race. He says that the winner will be ‘UKIP of course. What’s the point in believing in consensus. If I wasn’t at university and able to get down the Eastleigh I would be there knocking on doors and wearing my purple and yellow attire’.
Caspian, our independent blogger from JWS Politics, does make a prediction. He thinks that it will be Nick Clegg smiling on Friday because ‘The Lib Dems , against all the odds, will win Eastleigh in a closely fought battle’.
Whoever wins, the often unheralded contribution from the youth and student activists from all parties will have made an invaluable difference and, as they get a taste of election success or defeat, may well be forging our future law makers. Party bigwigs of all colours would do well to remember that.
Andrew Knight is a Conservative Party member and has been out campaigning for Maria Hutchings in Eastleigh. He tweets at @RooKnight.
Greg Foster is a Liberal Democrat and active member of Liberal Youth who has campaigned for Mike Thornton in Eastleigh. He tweets at @LibFozzy.
Stephen Goodall is Chair of Hampshire and Isle of Wight Young Labour and a member of Eastleigh Constituency Labour Party. He tweets at @sngoodall95.
Harry Randle is a member and activist of the United Kingdom Independence Party. He is from Southend-on-Sea and studies History and Politics at Loughborough University. He tweets at @Harry_Randle.
Caspian Conran is a young political blogger at JWS Politics. Their website can be found here http://jwspolitics.weebly.com/ and they tweet at @JWSPolitics.