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26 September 2014

Is Ukip poised to give Labour a “black October?”

Will there be by-election blues in Heywood and Middleton for Labour?

By Kevin Meagher

Losing the Clacton by-election in two weeks’ time is already in David Cameron’s game plan. It will be embarrassing, yes – and it might cause him some short-term difficulty with his backbenchers – but the loss is already discounted. What will provide a bigger jolt to British politics is if Ukip also wins the by-election in Labour-held Heywood and Middleton on the same day.

Labour sources are already edgy about the party’s prospects. The BNP managed 7 per cent of the vote here in 2010 and many of these “left behind” voters can be expected to switch to Ukip this time around, as indeed will some of Labour’s; angry at the ongoing child abuse scandal surrounding Rochdale council.

Labour has been slow on the uptake when it comes to recognising and reacting to the Ukip threat. The seriousness of Nigel Farage’s challenge to Labour in its heartlands is underlined by choosing Doncaster Racecourse for Ukip’s party conference today and tomorrow – right in Ed Miliband’s political back yard.

Tellingly, a session for activists offers “an in-depth look at how Ukip can tear chunks out of the Labour vote in May”. There is also a platform address by former Labour party staffer Richard Bingley, who defected to Ukip back in June. Yet there is no similar event looking at how to win seats from the Conservatives or even how to attract protest voters as successfully as the Lib Dems used to do.

Roll forward to October 30 and the next tricky by-election; this time to elect a successor to the disgraced Labour police and crime commissioner for South Yorkshire, Shaun Wright. Ten of Ukip’s top 100 Labour target seats are in South Yorkshire and the race may simply descend into a referendum on Professor Alexis Jay’s recent report into widespread child sexual exploitation in Rotherham.

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The mood across South Yorkshire is raw and while Labour’s National Executive has imposed the widely-admired former Anglican priest, Alan Billings, as its candidate, it’s worth bearing in mind that Billings was roundly beaten by Wright for the Labour nomination back in 2012, raising questions about his campaigning vim.

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Ukip received nearly 12 per cent of the vote in the PCC election here in 2012, providing a sound basis to mount an insurgency. So much so, that David Blunkett, an old friend of Billings from their time together on Sheffield council in the 1980s, is appealing to the Conservatives and Liberal Democrats not to stand candidates.

Even if Ukip loses the PCC ballot and doesn’t manage to pull off a major upset in Heywood and Middleton, it is still likely that the party will poll strongly. This will be enough to run a cold shiver down the spines of Labour MPs in northern seats as they contemplate their own fates next May. Of course, if Ukip does manage to win either of the by-elections, Labour will go into meltdown.

So it’s bleak autumn for Ed Miliband as Ukip snaps at Labour’s heels in their northern redoubts, or, indeed, a black October if they actually win something.