It’s the Heywood and Middleton by-election today. Following the death of Labour MP Jim Dobbin in September, polls open today to elect a new representative for the constituency in Greater Manchester.
Although it is a seat traditionally loyal to Labour, and the party’s candidate Liz McInnes is fairly comfortably ahead in the polls, Ukip is set to give the party a close fight at the polls today.
And for some, this fight is too close for comfort. One Labour aide who has long been campaigning for the party in the area tells me that Ed Miliband and the Labour leadership’s attitude to the seat has been “deeply frustrating”.
They confide that they are “really worried” about Ukip’s rise in the area, with its candidate John Bickley canvassing hard alongside Nigel Farage, who visited and posed on a tank a few days ago. “We are parking our tanks on Labour’s lawn – that’s the message and that’s the picture you wanted,” was the Ukip leader’s none-too-subtle message. Bickley came second in the recent Wythenshawe by-election and has been exploiting Labour-run Rochdale council’s role in the grooming scandal, blaming the party for being too afraid “to rock the multi-cultural boat”. The perpetrators in the area’s grooming scandal were predominantly of Pakistani origin, something Ukip is using in its more hardline message about immigration.
My source tells me that the Labour leadership has shown it’s “completely out-of-touch” with areas like this, which has put wind in Ukip’s sails, as it’s the only party discussing immigration, a pressing concern for Heywood and Middleton’s consituents. “Ukip have been allowed to run this dirty campaign and gain traction for it, while some [Labour MPs in the north] have been pushing to talk about immigration, and Ukip’s popularity, for a long time. It’s just ignored by Ed Miliband. He didn’t even mention immigration in his speech [to party conference]. All he did was make a pointless dig at the Daily Mail.”
Also, when the shortlist of Labour’s candidates was announced, there was a great deal of frustration among local party figures and supporters that there was an absence of a single local candidate on the list. Rank-and-file members were even planning a walk-out at the hustings for the candidate selection.
Although it is likely McInnes will win this by-election, the battle for Heywood and Middleton shines a light on what seems to be a widening gap between the Labour party’s priorities in Westminster and their members struggling to compete with Ukip rhetoric in the north.