The typical mid-term by-election that is really about so much more.
The people of Wythenshawe and Sale East will today go to the polls and secure Labour a morale boosting but wholly expected by-election win. Ed Miliband will call it a rejection of the Coalition, Cameron will call it a spirited campaign, UKIP will preen at having come second (or at very least a close third) from a standing start, and the Lib Dems will keep their heads down.
But this by-election has greater significance than most mid-term ballots in opposition safe seats. For a start, it’ll probably be the last parliamentry by-election before the European and Local Elections in May. UKIP are hoping to finish first and in doing so set themselves up for the 2015 election. Whatever the spin from CCHQ, this would be deeply troubling for the blue team, as it would give added voice to the restless Tory Right who’ve been calling on Cameron to take a tougher line on immigration and Europe, UKIP’s core issues.
For Labour, a strong showing in Wythenshawe is painfully needed by the leadership. Labour have been unable to put much daylight between themselves and the Tories in the polls, and economy is being awfully uncooperative and insists on improving. Having had to drop the ‘Plan A isn’t working’ line, Ed Balls has wisely tried to steer the debate towards a cost of living setting, but is still failing to resonant with voters in the south.
This by-election is also a precursor to the sort of UKIP-Labour scraps we can expect to see more of in 2015. Labour have been able to take the northern working class for granted for close to thirty years, and have only belatedly realised that UKIP are offering ‘the Labour your parents voted for’. Nigel Farage’s unique brand of social conservatism and economic populism is increasingly attractive to a swath of traditional Labour supporters who could never vote Tory, but still feel concerns over immigration and a sense that the London parties are one in the same.
UKIP were never going to win this by-election, despite the fantasies of the party’s online cheerleaders. UKIP accept that enthusiasm and simply not-being-Tory aren’t enough. The party still lacks the local organisation and resources to fight a professional campaign. But every election battle gives them a bit more experience and leaves a UKIP presence in the constituency. UKIP won’t win a by-election for a long time, but their laying solid foundations.
For the Tories, Wythenshawe could prove something of an embarrassment. Sure, it’s a mid term election and they’re the party in power. And yes, it’s a pretty safe Labour seat, but it’s not that deep in Labour territory. I used to live in the constituency (St Mary’s ward, to be exact), and my wife was born there. The area around Sale town center is full of old people and young professionals; natural Tory voters. Wythenshawe is a bit earthier, but Thatcher managed to woe precisely these sort of people. The constituency also borders Neil Hamilton’s old seat, and Altrincham & Sale West, held by ‘proper Tory’ Graham Brady, grammar school advocate and chairman of the 1922 Committee. If the Tories come third it’ll add unwelcome weight to accusations that the Conservative Party is dying in the urban north, just as Labour can’t get a look in in the rural south. Tory rebranding was meant to do away with the image that it’s a party of and for the rich. Eastleigh and Wythenshaw are precisely the sort of places that rebranding was meant to appeal to, and it’s not working.
The Lib Dems have scarcely put their heads above the parapet during this election. Like the Tories they can claim it’s not a target seat, which is perfectly true. But the Lib Dems are a party of government now; nowhere should off limits. And what’s more, wasn’t being in government supposed to bestow on the Lib Dems a measure experience, gravitas and authority? Skulking in the background just hoping to keep your deposit is the domain to Greens and BNP. Are we therefore seeing the Lib Dems tainted with the Tory brush? Is Nick Cleggs party similarly irreparably damaged in the northern cities? To their credit, the Lib Dems have a knack of retaining seats, but winning new ones from Labour seems unthinkable in the foreseeable future.
My prediction therefore is a Labour hold with a reduced majority, UKIP finishing second (just) with Tories third and a the Lib Dems a distant fourth. Labour with crow, UKIP will jeer even if a little disappointed on the inside. The Tories will renew hushed talk about the need for a pact with UKIP, and the Lib Dems will bite bottom lips and wonder of life wasn’t easier as the perennial party of opposition.