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UKIP needs to learn to manage expectations

After Farage's promise to "cause an earthquake", anything less than first in the European elections will be deemed a failure - and the polls suggest Labour may well win.

Nigel Farage will have some explaining to do if UKIP finishes second in the European elections. Photograph: Getty Images.

For months, the default assumption in Westminster and at the bookmakers has been that UKIP will win the European elections in May. It is a belief that Nigel Farage has done much to encourage, regularly promising to "cause an earthquake" by vanquishing Labour and the Tories. The polls, however, continue to tell a stubbornly different story. All three of the surveys conducted in the last month (by YouGov, Survation and ICM) have shown Labour in front, with today's ICM poll for the Guardian putting UKIP down in third place on 20 per cent, with the Tories on 25 per cent and Labour on 35 per cent (although it is worth noting that ICM's decision to discount the preferences of 50 per cent of those who didn't vote last time may have artificially depressed UKIP's share). 

UKIP figures insist they are not fazed by these figures, pointing out that the party traditionally gains heavily once the campaign proper begins. In the case of 2009 European elections, it only moved into second place a few weeks before polling day. On 8 May 2009, a YouGov poll put them on just 7 per cent, 15 points behind Labour and 12 points behind the Lib Dems. But by 3 June 2009, the day before the election, they were on 18 per cent, two points ahead of Labour and three points ahead of the Lib Dems. They eventually polled 16.5 per cent, finishing 0.8 per cent ahead of Labour. 

But while the same may be true this time round, some are rightly beginning to ask whether the party has failed to manage expectations. My own prediction has long been for a narrow Labour victory, with Miliband's party benefiting from simultaneous elections in all 32 London boroughs and all 36 metropolitan boroughs, areas where its core vote is strongest. Unlike in 2009, when UKIP was far less well known, it will not enjoy such a large publicity surge, or be able to exploit the expenses scandal, which broke just a few weeks before polling day. the year has not started as they would have wanted. In addition, while Farage has long vowed to turn the election into a referendum on Romanian and Bulgarian immigration, the dearth of migrants since the transitional controls were lifted on 1 January means he may find it harder to do so.

The danger for UKIP is that, owing to Farage's loose rhetoric, finishing second will now be viewed as a failure. As party donor Stuart Wheeler astutely observed in an interview with the New Statesman last year, "I’m getting slightly nervous because people seem to be so confident we’ll win, it will almost look like a failure if we don’t." There are signs that some in the party now recognise the need to engage in some shrewd expectation management. Rather than echoing Farage's prediction of an "earthquake", UKIP's new director of communications, former Daily Express columnist Patrick O'Flynn, is speaking of how the elections will be "a tough fight" and the party takes "nothing for granted". He would be wise to encourage his leader to adopt a similarly modest tone. 

The same should apply to the party's likely performance in the Wythenshawe and Sale East by-election on Thursday. Again, largely thanks to Farage, the belief that UKIP is on the brink of a parliamentary breakthrough (including, or even especially, in Labour-held seats) has been planted in the minds of Westminster pundits and betmakers. Toby Young, for instance, recently wrote:

It will be enormously helpful if Ukip wins the forthcoming by-election in the constituency of Wythenshawe and Sale East. That is not as far-fetched as you might think, as Mike Smithson points out in this post for PoliticalBetting.com. Since 2011, Ukip have come second in five by-elections – Eastleigh, South Shields, Barnsley Central, Rotherham and Middlesbrough – and the party did well in local elections in Wythenshawe and Sale East in 2012. Last night, Lord Ashcroft tweeted that betting on the outcome of the by-election had been temporarily suspended, suggesting that the bookies were busy recalculating the odds of a Ukip victory after several large bets had been placed on precisely that outcome.

The extent to which these forecasts were off-target was revealed when a poll by Lord Ashcroft put Labour 46 points ahead of Farage's party.

To finish second in a seat where it polled just 3 per cent in 2010 would be a significant achievement for UKIP. But somehow the party has allowed itself to be placed in a position where anything less than first is deemed a failure. If it is to retain momentum, it needs this to change. Indeed, it is when UKIP learns to play the expectations game that we will know it has truly arrived as a professional political party.