Douglas Carswell, who defected to Ukip from the Conservatives, with Nigel Farage. Photograph: Getty Images.
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Ukip’s rise isn’t all good news for Labour

Ukip could cost Labour several seats next year.

If Ed Miliband gets into Downing Street, he will forever be in Douglas Carswell’s debt. Such has been the reaction to Carswell’s decision to switch from the Conservatives to Ukip. Since Ukip takes significantly more votes from the Tories than anyone else, the right’s split could benefit Labour in much the same way as the left’s split benefited the Conservatives in the 1980s.

Yet Carswell’s defection poses a challenge for Labour, too. Just because Ukip will hurt the Conservatives more in 2015 does not mean that Labour can afford to be blasé about the threat. Eight of the ten seats that Ukip are most likely to win in 2015 are Labour-held, according to analysis by Rob Ford and Matthew Goodwin in Revolt on the Right. In these seats, Carswell’s manouevre is bad news for Labour: the more popular Ukip is, the more vulnerable these Labour seats are. The presence of a Ukip MP in Westminster will give the party momentum and a likely influx of donations, both of which should make a number of Labour MPs very twitchy.

Should Carswell win the Clacton by-election, it will also reveal a new phenomenon: natural Conservatives voting tactically for Ukip. It is one that has worrying implications for Labour. The toxicity of the Conservative brand – 40 per cent of voters say they would never vote Tory – has protected Labour in many seats, even as its vote has fallen and electoral turnout has collapsed. There are a lot of northerners whose views – especially on welfare, immigration and crime – chime with the Tories, but who would never, ever vote for them. This presents an opportunity for Ukip.

Take Great Grimsby. It has long been regarded as a safe Labour seat, but the party lost 15,000 votes between 1997 and 2010, when Austin Mitchell was elected with only 32.7 per cent of the vote. The Conservative brand may not be strong enough to win there, but what of Ukip? By uniting the anti-Labour vote – a coalition of normal Conservative voters and disenchanted non-voters and Labourites – Ukip should give Labour reason to doubt that they will be able to hold onto the seat. The Ukip candidate in Great Grimsby, Victoria Ayling, almost won the seat for the Conservatives in 2010. Like Carswell, therefore, she is ideally placed to get hordes of Tory voters to plump for Ukip.

Not that Mitchell thinks so. "Great Grimbsy is a safe seat," the constituency's retiring MP told me. "It’s a Labour seat." Such an attitude doesn't amount to much of a strategy to combat Ukip.

In the short-term, Ukip’s rise will benefit Labour more than the Conservatives. But, even in next year’s general election, the party could deprive Labour of several MPs – either by ousting Labour or winning a seat from the Conservatives that should be within the opposition's grasp. In Thurrock, the Tories only have a lead of 92 over Labour. If Labour are to become the largest party next year, let alone win an overall majority, such a seat ought to be turning red with ease. Yet Lord Ashcroft’s recent poll of the constituency had Ukip on course to win the seat; Ukip also lead in another top Labour target, Thanet South. As Rob Ford suggests, in seats such as these, it appears as if Ukip may be taking more votes from Labour than the Tories.

And the rise of Ukip also means that more political debate will move on to areas that Labour is uncomfortable discussing: Europe and immigration. As shadow minister Lisa Nandy recently told me: "The forces in British politics at the moment are all on the right".

If Labour is complacent to the Ukip threat, it may regret it in 2015 and beyond. Should it form a government, Ukip will be ideally placed to benefit from working class discontent with the party. In many seats, Ukip could challenge Labour more than the Conservatives ever have. Labour complacency to the Ukip threat will soon look like folly.  

Tim Wigmore is a contributing writer to the New Statesman and the author of Second XI: Cricket In Its Outposts.

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Is there such a thing as responsible betting?

Punters are encouraged to bet responsibly. What a laugh that is. It’s like encouraging drunks to get drunk responsibly, to crash our cars responsibly, murder each other responsibly.

I try not to watch the commercials between matches, or the studio discussions, or anything really, before or after, except for the match itself. And yet there is one person I never manage to escape properly – Ray Winstone. His cracked face, his mesmerising voice, his endlessly repeated spiel follow me across the room as I escape for the lav, the kitchen, the drinks cupboard.

I’m not sure which betting company he is shouting about, there are just so many of them, offering incredible odds and supposedly free bets. In the past six years, since the laws changed, TV betting adverts have increased by 600 per cent, all offering amazingly simple ways to lose money with just one tap on a smartphone.

The one I hate is the ad for BetVictor. The man who has been fronting it, appearing at windows or on roofs, who I assume is Victor, is just so slimy and horrible.

Betting firms are the ultimate football parasites, second in wealth only to kit manufacturers. They have perfected the capitalist’s art of using OPM (Other People’s Money). They’re not directly involved in football – say, in training or managing – yet they make millions off the back of its popularity. Many of the firms are based offshore in Gibraltar.

Football betting is not new. In the Fifties, my job every week at five o’clock was to sit beside my father’s bed, where he lay paralysed with MS, and write down the football results as they were read out on Sports Report. I had not to breathe, make silly remarks or guess the score. By the inflection in the announcer’s voice you could tell if it was an away win.

Earlier in the week I had filled in his Treble Chance on the Littlewoods pools. The “treble” part was because you had three chances: three points if the game you picked was a score draw, two for a goalless draw and one point for a home or away win. You chose eight games and had to reach 24 points, or as near as possible, then you were in the money.

“Not a damn sausage,” my father would say every week, once I’d marked and handed him back his predictions. He never did win a sausage.

Football pools began in the 1920s, the main ones being Littlewoods and Vernons, both based in Liverpool. They gave employment to thousands of bright young women who checked the results and sang in company choirs in their spare time. Each firm spent millions on advertising. In 1935, Littlewoods flew an aeroplane over London with a banner saying: Littlewoods Above All!

Postwar, they blossomed again, taking in £50m a year. The nation stopped at five on a Saturday to hear the scores, whether they were interested in football or not, hoping to get rich. BBC Sports Report began in 1948 with John Webster reading the results. James Alexander Gordon took over in 1974 – a voice soon familiar throughout the land.

These past few decades, football pools have been left behind, old-fashioned, low-tech, replaced by online betting using smartphones. The betting industry has totally rebooted itself. You can bet while the match is still on, trying to predict who will get the next goal, the next corner, the next throw-in. I made the last one up, but in theory you can bet instantly, on anything, at any time.

The soft sell is interesting. With the old football pools, we knew it was a remote flutter, hoping to make some money. Today the ads imply that betting on football somehow enhances the experience, adds to the enjoyment, involves you in the game itself, hence they show lads all together, drinking and laughing and putting on bets.

At the same time, punters are encouraged to do it responsibly. What a laugh that is. It’s like encouraging drunks to get drunk responsibly, to crash our cars responsibly, murder each other responsibly. Responsibly and respect are now two of the most meaningless words in the football language. People have been gambling, in some form, since the beginning, watching two raindrops drip down inside the cave, lying around in Roman bathhouses playing games. All they’ve done is to change the technology. You have to respect that.

Hunter Davies is a journalist, broadcaster and profilic author perhaps best known for writing about the Beatles. He is an ardent Tottenham fan and writes a regular column on football for the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 05 February 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Putin's war