Ukip have come a long way from this Photo: Euro Realist Newsletter
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Ukip's assault on Labour continues

Ukip threaten Labour in 2015 and beyond.

So Ukip now have their first elected MP. Douglas Carswell won Clacton as emphatically as expected. The forgotten Bob Spink is no longer the only Ukip MP in history.

That much we envisaged long before the night began. What we did not were the events in Heywood and Middleton, where Labour only held off Ukip by 617 votes. Although its vote share rose by 0.8 per cent, Labour’s majority of 6,000 in 2010 fell by 90 per cent to 617. "We are ripping lumps out of the old Labour vote in north England," Nigel Farage said. Expect plenty more of such bluster.

Ukip are not about to overturn dozens of Labour’s northern heartlands. But the result in Heywood is further evidence of the threat that Ukip poses Labour. It is one rooted in much more than the charisma of Mr Farage, but the disconnect between Labour (and all main parties) and the working-class. In 1979, there were 98 manual workers and 21 people who worked primarily in politics in Parliament. In 2010, 25 manual workers were elected to Westminster - and 90 people who had worked primarily in politics before becoming an MP. Average turnout was just 58 per cent in Labour’s 100 safest seats in 2010.

This deep-seated discontent underpins Ukip’s “2020 strategy”: the belief that a series of strong second-placed finishes next May, especially with local candidates who will contest the seats again five years later, will set the party up for a renewed assault at the next election.

And there are some northern seats that Ukip could even win next May. It is a threat that some in the Labour Party are increasingly recognising. A report by the Fabian Society last week argued that, while it remains a psephological fact that Ukip take around three Conservative votes for every one Labour vote, more than ten Labour seats could be at risk from Ukip (including Great Grimsby, which I visited last month). Labour could also miss out on gains from the Conservatives in seats where Ukip takes more votes from Labour than the Tories.

A number of MPs have admitted that Labour was guilty of complacency against Ukip in the past. After the European elections it became impossible for Labour to ignore its Ukip problem. And that is what makes the result in Heywood so worrying. Labour thought that it had honed its line of attack against Ukip – “More Tory than the Tories”. Evidently, it did not work.

Heywood also provided further proof of the strength of Ukip’s campaign machine. A poll from Lord Ashcroft last week gave Labour a 19 per cent lead in the constituency, which Ukip cut to two per cent tonight. We have seen this before: in Eastleigh last February, Ukip gained 31 per cent of its support in the last week, including 18 per cent on the day itself. Nigel Farage’s decision to talk down expectations in Heywood, and not campaign on the day of the vote, may have prevented John Bickley joining Douglas Carswell in Parliament.

That should be little consolation to Labour. John Mann, who has long been ahead of the party leadership in recognising the Ukip threat, warned immediately after the result: “If Ed Miliband does not broaden the Labour coalition to better include working class opinion then we cannot win a majority government.”

The underlying problem for Labour is that its poll numbers under Miliband have only held up because of the support of nearly a quarter of Liberal Democrat voters in 2010. Trying to reconcile appealing to voters now plumping for Ukip while retaining Labour’s appeal to disaffected former Lib Dems was not in the Miliband grand plan seven months before the general election.

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

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A group of men united only by sport was once my idea of hell. What changed?

It struck me, during the course of our team’s annual pre-season dinner, how much I like my team-mates. 

To the cricket team’s annual pre-season dinner. Although I’ve been playing for them for ten years or so, I’ve never been to one of these. This is because when I say “I’ve been playing for them for etc…” you’re probably not getting the right picture. What I mean is: I have played ten matches for them, and last year not at all, with a highest score of 22, and an average of 10.17. If you think that’s unimpressive, it’s a lot better than when I was a schoolboy, and I am just 26th placed out of 50 people who have played ten or more matches for them. Last year I was 25th, I see. Well, I’m going to have to do something about that.

The idea is that if I go to the dinner this time, it will inspire me to get in shape and play a game or two this season. I almost invariably enjoy it when I do, especially the time I was in a record-breaking tenth-wicket partnership of 72 while batting with a broken hand. (Well, finger. But a finger’s a part of the hand, isn’t it? Even the little finger.) I suppose there are times when I don’t enjoy it so much, such as when it’s raining hard enough for the cows in neighbouring fields to sit under a tree, but not hard enough to send us back to the pavilion or, better still, the pub, and the opposition are clouting us all over the ground despite the weather, and if we’d batted first – we never bat first, in my (limited) experience – the other lot would have polished us off about an hour ago, and we could now all be cosily inside the pavilion or, as I said earlier, even better, the pub. Then again, the team is called the Rain Men, so what did I expect?

So signing up for games involves considering a number of factors: some kind of mystic calculation about what the weather will be like, an assessment of how far away the ground is (we’re a nomadic team, so we don’t have one of our own), and how fit I think I’m going to be on the day. That’s the troublesome part. There is, of course, the melancholy of coming back, aching and knackered, at what is usually well after nine in the evening on a Sunday, lugging a cricket bag, like someone who has not been able to let go of his childhood and is out after his bedtime.

The fitness, as I said, is problematic. I got slightly out of puff going for a pee between the second and third paragraphs of this column, so I think there is going to be a lot of tedious spadework in store for me. My dumb-bells are in East Finchley, which I don’t go to, although as my cricket stuff is there too I suppose I’m going to have to bite that bullet sooner or later. If I eschew the dumb-bells then there will always be the floor, gravity, and push-ups. There will always be stairs, somewhere, I can run up and down, while I have the use of my legs. While there is an earth I can walk upon, I can walk upon it. The upper body strength, so I can pick up a cricket bat without falling over, is the thing to aim for, but right now the main goal is to be able to get out of bed and go to the loo without getting winded.

Anyway, the dinner. I decided that I’d walk to the restaurant. This was largely because the restaurant is about 200 yards from where I am holed up at the moment. There is, literally, only one restaurant closer to me. I walked a bit more than 200 yards because I had to swing by Sainsbury’s to pick up a couple of bottles of wine (the McGuigan’s Reserve Cab Sauv at £6.50 a bot, special offer, being the sedative of choice these days), as the restaurant is unlicensed. We met at the pub first, of course.

It struck me, during the course of the evening, how much I like my team-mates. I am by no means the oldest, so many of them are rich in wisdom and experience. (Amazingly, the team won more games last season than it has in its history, but that might have been because I hadn’t played for them.) Two of the people I am particularly fond of couldn’t make it, but at least I got to have A Long Rant About Life In General with Marcus Berkmann, author of two extremely amusing books about the team (Rain Men and Zimmer Men), as well as the greatest book about Star Trek ever written (Set Phasers to Stun).

Imagine: a long table sat at by a group of about 15 men, united only by a sport. It would once have been my idea of hell. So why is it not now? Is it because I actually like these guys? They’re not the typical idea of a cricket club gang, I have to say that. And we do, admittedly, talk about cricket a fair amount. But still. (I even liked I—, who gave up smoking and then had a rush of blood to the head last year and sent a round-robin email to the team saying how much he hated A—, one of our most lovable players. I— couldn’t make it to the dinner, largely on the grounds of not having been invited.) Or am I that lonely? 

Nicholas Lezard is a literary critic for the Guardian and also writes for the Independent. He writes the Down and Out in London column for the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 12 April 2018 issue of the New Statesman, Syria’s world war