IT IS set to be the most fiercely fought by-election in Hampshire’s history.

But when voters in Eastleigh go to the polls on February 28 they will be also be providing a litmus test for the coalition government.

No surprise then that the two parties have already deployed their heavyweights to the field.

For the Conservatives, Justice Secretary Chris Grayling was out canvassing at the weekend.

And Chief Secretary to the Treasury Danny Alexander was campaigning for the Liberal Democrats.

He was the warm-up act before Business Secretary Vince Cable went walkabout in the constituency with Lib Dem candidate Mike Thornton.

Parliamentary private secretary to Labour Leader Ed Miliband, John Denham, who is MP for neighbouring constituency Southampton Itchen, was also staking his party’s claim in a battle ground to be fought mainly on jobs and housing.

Labour will announce their candidate on Tuesday night – and comedian John O’Farrell, the Have I Got News For You writer has already thrown his hat in the ring.

But what will the issues be?

Affordable homes are becoming increasingly scarce while controversy surrounds plans for 10,000 new homes that would concrete over swathes of countryside.

The economy is also a key. While unemployment is low, at just above two per cent, the area has witnessed a decline in well paid, skilled jobs.

The railway industry, despite a recent upswing, is a shadow of what it was. And many have been tempted to hop on a train to London for better pay.

Dark clouds have also hung over the area with the loss of the Hovis Bread factory last year and the impending closure of Ford’s Transit factory in nearby Swaythling with the loss of 800 jobs and double that in the supply chain.

It is a challenging economic environment despite boasting some of the best transport links in the country, with Southampton Airport and docks, direct rail links to London and the M3 and M27.

The Lib Dems are in the unenviable position of defending a seat made vacant after the resignation of former Cabinet member Chris Huhne’s after he confessed to perverting the course of justice over a speeding offence.

Success will be crucial because it is a key Liberal Democrat stronghold, with a massive majority in the council and a seat in parliament since the early 1994.

They won in a by-election after the death of the last MP, Conservative Stephen Milligan.

At the 2010 General Election Huhne won by a 3,864 majority, representing 46 per cent of the vote. This was followed by Maria Hutchings who won by 39 per cent. She has now stepped up to fight for the seat again.


Labour only gathered 9.6 per cent of the vote and a strong performance this time round would be in defiance of a long-term decline in the south east.

They announce their candidate tomorrow with hopes that success could signal a comeback for the party on a national basis.

The party has a mountain to climb but in the last Eastleigh Commons by-election in 1994 it came second, pushing the Tories into third place.

 The closest Labour has ever got to winning the constituency since the Second World War was in 1966 when the Conservatives hung on by 701.

But smaller parties like the UK Independence Party could be strong contenders. Disillusionment with the Conservative and Lib Dems as well as Labour could see voters return the party’s first MP.

A special interest party is also already in the ring, with the National Health Action Party, led by GP Dr Iain Maclennan, campaigning for better public health.

The Official Monster Raving Loony Party are also fielding a candidate in the election. He is the party’s leader Alan “Howling Laud” Hope from Fleet in Hampshire. And the Trade Unionist and Socialist Coalition has put up a candidate, Darren Proctor.