On the road in Oldham West and Royton: can Ukip win?

The Paris attacks “must be a game-changer ," Ukip's candidate says.

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For years the media obsessed over how Ukip imperilled the Conservative Party. Yet all the while Nigel Farage’s party was developing an abrasive working-class image designed to woo restless Labourites. In May, Ukip’s four million votes helped it come second to Labour in 44 seats. In nine seats the Tories gained from Labour, including Ed Balls’ constituency of Morley and Outwood, Ukip won more votes than the size of the Conservative majority: further evidence of the hazard Ukip pose to Labour.

Thirteen months ago, Ukip came within 600 votes of ousting Labour in Heywood and Middleton, the closest Ukip have so far come to taking a seat directly from Labour. Now, in neighbouring Oldham West and Royton, Ukip is aiming to give renewed notice of its threat to Labour’s traditional core vote.

Exactly how the impact of the Paris attacks will impact upon Oldham’s voters on 3 December is unclear. “I’d definitely be using it if I were Ukip,” one Shadow Cabinet minister tells me. Farage has already blamed the EU for “the free movement of Kalashnikovs.” To John Bickley, Ukip’s candidate, the atrocities in France “must be a game-changer in so much as people will want a basic level of security. People will want to know 'what's my government doing to make sure what happened in Paris can't happen here'?”

Even before the Paris atrocities, the tone of Ukip’s campaign in Oldham was clear. One early leaflet attacked Corbyn’s Labour Party for advocating uncontrolled mass immigration, wanting to axe the armed forces altogether and return the Falkland Islands to Argentina.

“If they want to try the patriotic card, they can try as hard as they like,” Labour's candidate Jim McMahon tells me in a member's plush house in the east of the constituency. McMahon was a Remembrance Sunday organiser for five years, and both his father and grandfather were members of the Territorial Army. Young, local and a popular leader of Oldham Council, McMahon is no Corbynista, proving himself pragmatic and business-friendly. But local popularity and campaigning skills can only do so much set against deeper national trends, as copious fizzy Labour candidates dragged down by Ed Miliband in the general election would attest.

Although we meet over a pint, Bickley defies the main caricatures of a Ukip candidate. He is neither a crusty retired colonel nor a tedious tub-thumper. As the son of a Labour-supporting trade unionist, the 62-year-old implores local Labour voters to free themselves from “political Stockholm syndrome,” and “break free of their tribe”.

“We're saying to voters: you've had the Labour Party for 70 years, what have they achieved for you?”  Bickley’s tactic is to make the by-election into a referendum on Corbyn and “his cabal of Marxists” running the Labour Party. “It’s not unreasonable to point out this man is not an overt patriot.”

Yet while immigration and patriotism have come to dominate the by-election, it is also providing further evidence of the emergence of "Red Ukip" as a campaigning force. When Bickley ran in Wythenshawe and Sale last year, Ukip’s leaflets attacked “Labour’s millionaires,” and similar tactics were used by his campaign in Heywood and Middleton. Now Ukip have circulated literature on ‘How Labour privatised the NHS: And How Ukip will save it, for you’. As Bickley explains, this is part of a wider strategy to undermine the rationale for supporting Labour. “For Labour the NHS has to be in crisis when they're not in party. Without that, the reasons for them to exist start to look quite tenuous. So they will always pitch the NHS as being an utter disaster when they're not in charge.” While Bickley’s analysis is astute – Labour’s scaremongering about the apparent looming privatisation of the NHS by the Conservatives was emblematic of their paucity of ideas in the general election – it also highlights the ideological tensions within Ukip. In 2012 Farage was recorded saying that an insurance-based health system is "a debate that we're all going to have to return to". 

Even more audacious is Bickley’s attempt to frame himself as the natural successor to Michael Meacher, the Labour MP for 45 years and an ardent supporter of Corbyn until passing away last month. Bickley’s website calls Meacher “a conviction politician who worked hard for the voters of Oldham West & Royton. He represented the people of this constituency, for a party that no longer represents anybody.”

Calling out such opportunism will not get Labour very far. Voters are drawn to Ukip not in pursuit of ideological consistency but because of deep-rooted dissatisfaction with the political class, which immigration has become emblematic of, as Bickley points out. “Uncontrolled immigration often acts as a catch-all for other concerns - they're funnelled through that prism.” Oldham West knows as much better than most: in 2001, Nick Griffin won 16.4 per cent for the BNP here, although the party are now effectively defunct and are not even standing a candidate.

Despite growing anxieties about their prospects, Labour remain heavy favourites to win. The party has a majority of 14,738 and a dynamic local candidate. Bickley admits the by-election “is tougher than Heywood and Middleton,” where Ukip benefited from anger about a local sex abuse scandal.

Unlike Heywood and Middleton, Oldham West and Royton has a large Asian population: 26.5 per cent of the population are Asian, a group who have historically not been well disposed to Ukip. Indeed, just two per cent of the BME electorate plumped for Ukip in May. “The large ethnic minority population is likely to stay loyal to Labour,” believes Professor Rob Ford, an expert on Ukip.

Yet Bickley reckons that the increased anxiety after the Paris attacks might make British Asians more amenable to Ukip. “The Asian population share the same concerns about uncontrolled immigration as what you might call the white British because they've got kids. They see what's going on and that when these guys get our their Kalashnikovs they're not necessarily going 'oh right let’s make sure we only kill these types of people'. If these people turn up in Oldham tomorrow and decide to spray their bullets around everyone will get caught up in it. Everyone’s got the same concerns. Immigration is not a white British issue. It is just a British issue.”

The sepulchral Oldham weather provides Ukip with further hope. The party believe that enthusiasm is stronger among Ukip than Labour supporters, and so dismal weather, and a low turnout, would increase Ukip’s chances of snaring a Labour-held seat for the first time in its history. Bickley plays up what the consequences of a surprise Ukip victory would be for Labour. “If I was to win here, the internal war in Labour would literally spill onto the streets.”

Even a scare would be a sign of the unseemly mess Labour is in. The cities of the northwest remain a Labour fiefdom: in Manchester, a 20-minute tram ride away, Labour has a full house of all 95 councillors. If Labour is freting in Oldham West, even with a strong local party machine and a dynamic local candidate, it would do well to ask where it remains safe. “Ukip could run Labour close, which will have a lot of northern Labour MPs in less diverse seats very worried,” Ford says.

John Mann was among the first Labour MPs to warn of the danger Ukip pose to Labour, challenging the orthodoxy held that their main impact would be to split the right and help Miliband into Number 10. Mann regards McMahon as “a very good candidate” and expects Labour to retain the seat “comfortably enough”. Still, he hopes the by-election will serve another purpose. “The more new members and those from the south who spend time up here the better. They’ll get a culture shock. People want to talk about immigration, refugees and terrorism - they're the three main issues."

The Conservatives will naturally delight in Labour’s agitation about its chances of retaining the seat. Yet in the week when George Osborne’s spending review will re-emphasise the Conservative Party’s commitment to building the “Northern Powerhouse,” the fight in Oldham West is providing a reminder of how desolate the Tories’ reputation in much of the north remains. A quarter of all northerners don’t know anyone who votes for Conservative. The Tories’ main function in Oldham is as a spoiler for Ukip: hence why Ukip tell Conservatives "Vote Tory, Get Corbyn". Labour’s great fear is that many of its disaffected voters find Ukip a palatable option in a way the Tories never could be.

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