Nigel Farage has conceded defeat in the Wythenshawe and Sale East by-election and not very graciously. He has written in the Independent complaining about the behaviour of his opponents and hinting at dirty tricks, possibly even fraud. In reality, Ukip was never going to win the seat. It’s safe Labour territory and the by-election was triggered by the death of a much admired local MP. As George wrote yesterday, Farage’s party is in danger of mishandling expectations of what it can achieve.
Although I don’t doubt that BNP activists are capable of being unpleasant – as Farage alleges – I saw the Labour campaign in Wythenshawe at close quarters and it looked entirely civil, decent and orderly. More important, it was organised. (I’ve written about the wider implications of this in my column in this week’s magazine.) One big reason Ukip couldn’t break through in this seat is that they didn’t know where their voters were. They knew potential support was out there somewhere, but there’s a limit to what can be achieved driving around spraying out messages indiscriminately.
Above all, Labour’s organisational advantage helped with the postal ballots. Not surprisingly, Farage’s complaint on that front is the sourest grape in the bunch. For incumbent parties with up-to-date lists of supporters, postal votes are now paramount in a campaign. Asking about them was, from what I could see, an absolute priority on the doorstep – more so than the traditional offer of posters and garden-gate placards. With enough postal votes a contest can be settled before polling day.
That is the lesson that Labour has learned from the Eastleigh by-election last year. The Lib Dems held the seat despite a serious challenge from Ukip and an aggressive media campaign against Nick Clegg and his party. It was the short race and post that did it. On the day, more people turned out for Ukip than any other party. Senior Lib Dems admit that if the campaign had gone on a week longer, they may well have lost the seat.
That battle has become a case study for other parties, hoping to work their incumbency advantage and minimise the Ukip challenge. Interestingly, Eastleigh is now one of Ukip’s prime targets precisely because Farage’s party will be better organised next time. It takes at least one campaign to map the terrain and collect the data – house numbers, email addresses, phone numbers – of the people who can swing a seat. In most seats, Ukip simply doesn’t have that kind of infrastructure. (Although it is worth noting that they are more of a threat to the Tories than Labour precisely because, while they get votes from across the spectrum, they poach activists from Cameron and that is a deeper wound.)
On that note, it is worth also puncturing some of the excitement on the Conservative side about Ukip under-performing in Wythenshawe and even perhaps May’s European elections. The latest ICM survey shows Ukip in third place behind the Tories in the MEP ballot, which gives Tories hope that the meltdown they have been anticipating might not fully materialise. It’s fair to say that if Farage’s party doesn’t out-poll Cameron’s there will be something approximating jubilation on the Conservative side. But judging by past precedent, Ukip are still on course to overtake the Tories in this particular race. Besides, Ukip coming in second – missing out on the first place that Farage craves – is still catastrophic for Cameron, possibly even worse than if they win outright.
Why? Because Ukip coming top allows the Tories to say that everyone has been punished by the anti-politics insurgency, Labour included. It permits defensive Conservative briefing that, in reality, Miliband is losing too – the main opposition really ought to win a European election a year out from a general election to prove it has some momentum. In other words, if Labour come second and the Tories third, the triumph of Ukip over all of Westminster becomes the story. But if Labour win but Ukip come second, the specific triumph of Farage over Cameron is the story – and that’s exquisitely disastrous for No10.