Eastleigh: Is this the most colourful by-election in recent memory?

By Ian Dunt

All main party have finally selected their candidates for the Eastleigh by-election, in what might be the most colourful line-up for a local poll in recent memory.

Labour selected author and satirist John O'Farrell, who wrote the book 'Things Can Only Get Better: Eighteen Miserable Years in the Life of a Labour Supporter', while Ukip selected Diane James, who immediately went to work making a series of questionable statements on Romanians and crime.

"There is a great deal of hard work ahead. But first I am going to the pub", O'Farrell tweeted last night.

The presence of a telegenic, witty candidate will prevent Labour melting into the background in the campaign, where it has little chance of winning.

In fact, a strong Labour performance would probably split the left vote and allow the Conservatives in, bolstering the confidence of David Cameron's party.

But having defined his leadership with the slogan 'one nation', Miliband can ill-afford to allow southern seats like Eastleigh go by unfought.

Meanwhile, James was campaigning with Ukip leader Nigel Farage in the Hampshire seat.

"Immigration is the elephant in the room that the other parties want not to address because they are heavily reliant on unrestricted immigration," she said.

"In the last few years immigrants have settled in areas where there are a large number of Labour voters.

"On the January 1 2014 the floodgates will open for Bulgarian and Romanian citizens.

"We are not just talking about pressure on services from immigration but also, and I have to say it, the crime associated with Romanians.

"One of the problems with the Olympics last year was the Metropolitan Police having to deal with Romanian criminal gangs pick-pocketing."

The candidate wants a moratorium on all immigration starting immediately.

The Ukip candidate may have been pushed towards making more outlandish statements due to the outspoken nature of the Tory candidate herself.

Maria Hutchings started the campaign denying a comment in which she said she did not care about refugees.

But early comments from the Conservative place her firmly in the awkward squad category of backbench MPs, including right-wing views on gay marriage, Europe and abortion.

Local Liberal Democrat councillor Mike Thornton is running for his party – a product of its extraordinary control of the local council.

The outspoken nature of the candidates adds a further dimension to a by-election which already a fascinating test of the coalition's ability to campaign against itself while continuing the business of government.

It also provides a sneak peek at the Tories' electoral strategy, which will try to take seats from the Lib Dems by focusing on the national picture with 'weaponised' dividing-line policy proposals rather than local issues.

The Liberal Democrats need to be able to protect seats like Eastleigh, where they have a majority of over 3,500, if they are to have any chance of surviving 2015.

Most polls put the Tories and Lib Dems roughly neck-and-neck. A Lord Ashcroft poll gave the Tories a three point lead while a Survation poll put the Lib Dems three points ahead.

Polling is less frequent during by-elections because it can be expensive to conduct local surveys.

This afternoon is the deadline for registering as a candidate in Eastleigh.