Scotland could be left on the sidelines as Tories and Labour both focus on growth of Ukip, writes George Kerevan
TOMORROW’S by-election in Wythenshawe, Manchester has mostly dropped below the radar in Scotland. This is partly because we have our own political preoccupations, and partly because the by-election outcome seems preordained. Wythenshawe is normally a safe Labour seat. Paul Goggins, the late MP who died in January, won with a majority of 18.6 per cent at the 2010 general election. In Manchester, they weigh the Labour votes.
However, the electors of Wythenshawe deserve more attention. We have barely a year to go till the next Westminster election and only a few months before the European Parliament poll on 22 May. Any pointer to the state of the parties in Middle England has significance for Scotland.
Normally, with the economy picking up nicely and business optimism at a 22-year high, conventional wisdom would expect voters to move in the direction of the governing party. But that is not happening…yet. This year, in Westminster polls, Labour has maintained an average lead over the Tories of circa five percentage points, at 38 to 33.
OK, that lead could vanish in a puff but it still leaves Prime Minister David Cameron and Chancellor George Osborne on the defensive. Delve down a bit in the polling data and you will also find that Labour leader Ed Miliband’s popularity rating is on the rise, while 52 per cent of people think Cameron is doing a bad job.
Why are the Tories trailing? The obvious explanation is that – for the first time in modern British history – it is the right-wing that is split. We now have Ukip – a cheery, cheeky incarnation of Middle English populist values – vying for votes with the Oxbridge and City elite who have taken control of the Conservative Party machine.
Under Nigel Farage, Ukip has progressed from the lunatic fringe to serious protest vehicle. Garnering a regular 10-15 per cent in the polls, it is denying the Tories their expected lead over Labour.
So what else is new under the sun? Actually, a number of things. For starters, Farage is proving unexpectedly tough. He has survived the baiting of the metropolitan media without self-destructing. He is busily purging Ukip of its loony elements. And he has turned his sights on Labour – which is where the Wythenshawe by-election becomes interesting.
A poll taken last week in the constituency puts Labour in first place on a whopping 61 per cent, up 17 points on the general election. But it finds Ukip in second place at 15 per cent, a four-fold increase on its 2010 result in the constituency. That still leaves Labour 46 points ahead, of course. But in the aftermath of this poll finding, a number of heavy financial bets have been laid on a Ukip victory in Wythenshawe.
The London and European media is atwitter by the prospect of Ukip doing phenomenally well in Wythenshawe. Even a good second that pushes the Tories and hapless Lib Dems into third and fourth place could put Ukip on course to do well in the European elections. Farage has been spinning heavily that Ukip could actually come out as the winner in the European elections, humiliating the Tories.
Here is the truth: punters betting on a Ukip victory at Wythenshawe will certainly lose their money. (Though Ukip benefits from the free publicity – hint, hint). True, Farage has shown his ability to attract support from the traditional working class, or what’s left of it in the north of England. Since 2011, Ukip has come second in by-elections in other northern constituencies, including South Shields, Barnsley Central, Rotherham and Middlesbrough. But in each case, in low turnouts, Ukip polled well behind Labour, with Miliband’s team usually cornering an overall majority of the vote. Verdict: middle class Ukip is no challenger to Labour. Nor, I’m willing to bet, will Farage come top of the European poll.
Back at the last European elections in 2009, Ukip managed only 17 per cent. And that in a year when Labour crashed to a dismal 16 per cent as a result of Gordon Brown’s disastrous premiership. True, if you add in the fascist BNP vote, and other English fringe parties, there were another 10 per cent of votes in the maverick camp. Without those distractions this time round, Ukip theoretically could be looking at a quarter of the poll.
Yet the latest soundings for the 22 May election have Ukip on only 20 per cent – well behind a resurgent Labour on a healthy 35 per cent, or Cameron’s Tories at 25. Indeed, the European poll could be the launch pad for putting Miliband in Number 10 next year.
That does not mean Ukip is irrelevant. What Ukip can do tomorrow at Wythenshawe is humiliate David Cameron. That will embolden the Tory back-benches to go on undermining Cameron, driving the party further to the right. The danger from Ukip is not that it wins seats, but that it is part of the organic destruction of the old, pragmatic Conservatives as a “One Nation” party of the centre-right. Remember: together, the Tories and Ukip command nearly 50 per cent of the UK vote – well ahead of Labour. Someday, expect the English right to reunite with a vengeance – probably in a referendum to quit the European Union.
Wythenshawe will not enter the history books as a Ukip victory. But if Farage gets enough momentum on Thursday, Ukip just might overtake the Tories in the European elections. That is hardly game over for Cameron – who really cares about the European elections? But a sizeable defeat for Cameron in May will excite more dissent in the Tory ranks.
As for Labour, Miliband’s Hugo Young lecture on Monday night concentrated solely on more devolution…for English city-regions like Manchester. Nary a mention of Scotland nor the potential break-up of Britain. For Miliband – like Cameron – has his eye fixed on placating the restive English heartlands and getting Farage off his political lawn.
Lesson: A No vote in September will leave Scotland as a bystander in the emergence of a purely English politics.
• Brian Wilson’s column now appears in The Scotsman every Saturday