Councillor Abigail Bell's star rising as Eastleigh by-election impacts on Lib Dems' prospects in East Yorkshire
VOTERS go to the polls in Eastleigh this Thursday to elect a new MP following a high-profile by-election campaign.
In spite of ongoing investigations into allegations of sexual harassment by former party chief executive Lord Rennard, the Liberal Democrats stand a good chance of winning – a victory that may add further strain to the coalition.
For it was widely believed the Lib Dems were no longer a party capable of winning anything, let alone a marginal seat in the south of England.
Poll after poll shows that trust in, and support for, the UK's third party has collapsed since it entered government with the Conservatives more than two and a half years ago.
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But then the Lib Dems have always been good at grassroots campaigning.
In Eastleigh, the party holds every single council seat and Chris Huhne, however ignominious his fall, was a popular MP. So such things are still possible in Hampshire, but what about Hull and the East Riding?
For the moment at least, Hull and the surrounding area is a two-party region, with Labour dominating urban areas and Conservatives the rural parts of East Yorkshire.
That does not mean, however, that Lib Dems stand little or no chance of breaking that duopoly.
At the 2010 general election, for example, Denis Healey (not the former Labour Chancellor) came within 641 votes of unseating Labour's Diana Johnson.
And the city, it seems, remains on the party's radar. Business Secretary Vince Cable frequently mentions Hull in speeches while Nick Clegg, the party leader and Deputy Prime Minister, has been among the most enthusiastic proponents of Siemens' planned investment in the city.
"We're very keen to target seats in Hull at the next election," says a senior Lib Dem strategist. "We haven't decided which seats to target yet but we will be very focused on at least one and will absolutely be looking to win it.
"Hull North is a keen contender, but also Hull West and Hessle. Is Alan Johnson still going to be up for running next time?
"Councillor Abi Bell has a good track record and there's a very good group of campaigners there, who are very ambitious."
When pushed, the source conceded that Hull North and Hull West were the only serious contenders to be targeted by the Lib Dems.
"But once we've made up our minds," the source said, "people will realise very quickly which one we've gone for."
Mention of Cllr Bell is intriguing, for she famously told Nick Clegg that he had "got it so wrong" over the Government's original proposal to impose VAT on static caravans when he visited Hull prior to a partial climb down. Surely such an independent spirit would make an ideal MP?
Councillor Bell, however, rules out any such move, saying: "I'm quite happy being a local councillor."
To underline the point, she says a selection process for candidates in Hull is almost complete and she will not be among them.
More widely, she thinks Eastleigh could lift the party's morale.
Cllr Bell said: "Obviously, winning a by-election is a great boost for any party. I know people say the mood isn't good and of course it's tough – it's always tough in government – but we have a lot to celebrate."
The Liberal Democrats, of course, controlled Hull City Council for five years before returning to opposition in 2011. That was a bruising experience, although the party's website pledges to work hard to ensure "Labour do not drag the council back to where it was before the Lib Dems took over – the worst council in England".
A Lib Dem strategist agrees this makes Hull surprisingly fertile territory.
He said: "We've actually found it very easy to squeeze the Labour vote in Hull. We did really well last year. In fact, we did better in Hull than pretty much anywhere else in the region."
Indeed, in last year's local elections, a point in the electoral cycle when governing parties generally get punished, Hull's Lib Dems held seven out of the 12 council seats they were defending and almost held on to an eighth.
Rebecca Taylor, Yorkshire and the Humber's Lib Dem Member of the European Parliament (MEP), says this is down to the party holding the Labour-led council to account. As an MEP, she also says she is "fighting hard to get a fair deal for Hull, as I am for the rest of Yorkshire".
"All this is on top of the work of the Lib Dems in Government, who are helping ordinary people by increasing the income tax threshold", says Ms Taylor.
To underline this point, the party recently released statistics showing that since 2010, 13,410 Hull residents have been lifted out of paying tax altogether.
Expect similar, justifiable, boasts between now and the election. Even if the Liberal Democrats hold on to Eastleigh this Thursday, it will just be the first step on a long walk back to political and, more to the point, electoral credibility for the UK's third party.