Going postal - why Nigel Farage is cross about Wythenshawe

Labour has learned lessons from the Lib Dem campaign in Eastleigh last year.

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.

Ukip leader Nigel Farage. Source: Getty

Rafael Behr is political columnist at the Guardian and former political editor of the New Statesman

Photo: Getty Images
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Bomb Isil? That's exactly what they want

The government appears not to answer the nature of its enemy, warns Maria Norris.

As MPs are set to vote on further airstrikes in Syria, it is difficult to shake off the feeling that the government does not fully appreciate the complexity of the problem Isil poses. Just a cursory glance at its magazine, the pronouncements of its leaders and its ideology reveals that Isil is desperate for Western bombs to fall out of the sky. As Martin Chulov argues, Isil is fighting a war it believes was preordained since the early days of Islam. Isil’s obsession with the city of Dabiq, in Northern Syria, stems from a hadith which prophesises that the ‘Crusader’ army will land in the city as a precursor to a final battle where Islam will emerge victorious. Dabiq is also the name of its magazine, which starts every issue with the same quote: "The spark has been lit here in Iraq, and its heat will continue to intensify -- by Allah's permission -- until it burns the crusader armies in Dabiq". Isil wants a war with the West. If we don’t negotiate with terrorists, then we also should not give them what they want.

Further, bombs are indiscriminate and will inevitably lead to the suffering of those trapped in Isil territories. Isil is counting on this suffering to swell their ranks. Civilian suffering from airstrikes only underline the narrative that the West is at war with Islam, which plays directly into Isil’s hands. And despite misleading headlines and the genuine government concern with individuals fleeing to Syria, Isis is supremely unpopular. It is no wonder that its magazine is filled with glossy adds begging people to move to its territories.  You cannot be a state without people. Terrorist attacks such as Paris thus have a two-pronged purpose: they provoke the West to respond with its military, and they act as a recruitment drive. The fact that fake Syrian passports were found around the sites of the Paris attacks is no coincidence as Isil are both seeking to stem the flow of refugees from its territories and hoping to provoke an Islamophobic backlash. They hope that, as more Muslims feel alienated in the West, more will join them, not just as fighters, but as the doctors, nurses and teachers it desperately needs.

In addition to this, airstrikes overlook the fact that Isil is a result of what Fawaz Gerges calls a severe, organic institutional crisis in the Middle East. In a lecture at the London School of Economics earlier this year, Gerges pointed out the dysfunction created when a region that is incredibly resource rich also is also deeply undemocratic, riddled with corruption, food insecurity, unemployment and poverty. This forms an institutional vacuum that is filled by non-state actors as the population does not trust its political structures. Further, the civil war in Syria is also the site of the toxic soup of Middle Eastern state dysfunction. Iran supports Assad, Saudi Arabia and the Gulf countries, fund anti-Shia groups in Syria. Throw in the Kurdish conflict, Turkey’s ambiguous position and Russian bombs, it is difficult to see how airstrikes will solve anything.

Finally, it is crucial that Isil is seen as a direct result of the Iraq war. The American-led invasion destroyed the institutions, giving the Shia majority power almost overnight, creating deep dissatisfaction in the Sunni regions of Iraq. On top of this thousands of foreign fighters flooded Iraq to fight the invaders, attracting disenfranchised and angry Sunnis. The result is that since 2003, Iraq has been embroiled in a sectarian civil war.  It is in civil war, inherently connected to the Iraq War, that you find the roots of Isil. As even the Prime Minister concedes that ground troops are necessary, albeit it regional ground troops with its own set of problems, it is important to consider what further monster can arise from the ashes of another ill-thought out military intervention in the Middle East.
We have had decades of military intervention in the Middle East with disastrous consequences. Airstrikes represent business as usual, when what we actually need is a radically new approach. Who is funding Isil? Who is buying its oil? How to curb Isil’s recruitment drives? What can be done about the refugees? How to end the conflict in Syria? What happens to Assad? These are questions hopefully being addressed in talks recently held in Vienna with Russian, Ira, the USA, France, Syria’s neighbours and the Gulf states. Airstrikes do not answer any of these questions. What airstrikes do is give Isil exactly what it is asking for. Surely this is reason enough not to bomb Syria. 

Maria W. Norris is a PhD candidate and a teacher at the London School of Economics and Political Science. Her PhD is on the UK counter-terrorism strategy since 9/11 and its relationship with identity. She tweets as @MariaWNorris.