Can Ukip give Miliband a scare in Labour's heartland?
In upcoming by-election, Farage aims to prove it's not just Tories at risk – he's targeting Labour too
THE 13 February by-election in the Manchester seat of Wythenshawe and Sale East gives Labour the chance to test-market Ed Balls's 50p tax promise and Ukip the opportunity to give Ed Miliband a major scare in Labour's heartland.
Ukip leader Nigel Farage is promoting his candidate, John Bickley, as a “local boy who really cares about the community he is from”.
Not only was he born on a Wythenshawe council estate and did he attend the local comprehensive, Bickley is from a staunch Labour background, his father having been an active trade union member.
Giving Labour a run for their money is crucial to Farage's strategy. He is fed up with the Tory charge 'Vote Farage, Get Miliband', the suggestion being that by going after disaffected Tory voters he is simply shoring up Labour’s persistent lead in the polls.
Now Farage wants to show that Labour is at risk from Ukip too: that his party's line on immigration and the threat to jobs is as attractive to some traditional Labour supporters as it is to right-wing Tories.
As he told the Daily Telegraph earlier this month, “There are some Labour-held marginals in this country where only Ukip has a chance of beating them, not the Tories. They know the immigration thing is huge with their voters.”
On the basis of recent local election results and opinion polls, Ukip has overtaken the Lib Dems as the third force in British politics.
In the May 2013 local elections, Ukip enjoyed the biggest surge by a fourth party in England since World War Two. Of the 147 Ukip councillors elected, 139 represented gains.
Today, the party is consistently placed third in the opinion polls. Yesterday's Sunday Times YouGov poll had Labour on 39 per cent, Conservatives on 32 per cent, Ukip on 13 per cent and the Lib Dems on nine per cent. The BBC's poll of polls gives exactly the same statistics.
Even in the extraordinarily hostile territory of Scotland, Ukip pushed the Lib Dems into fifth place in this month's Cowdenbeath by-election, which was won by Labour with a 11.25 per cent swing from the Scots Nationalists (but that's another story).
Labour should win the Wythenshawe by-election with ease. Their widely admired MP Paul Goggins, who died earlier this month, had a majority of more than 7,575 over the Conservatives in 2010. Labour have chosen their own local man, Michael Kane, to defend the seat. As the Manchester Evening News reports, he's been a party activist since the age of 18.
But Farage is clearly hoping to follow the Lib Dems' example and use spectacular upsets at by-elections and local elections to create publicity, excitement and momentum – the strategy that made Lord Rennard a Lib Dem hero before the recent harassment claims shadowed his reputation.
Ukip have a very good chance of coming second ahead of the Conservatives in Wythenshawe: they have notched up five second places in by-elections over the past three years. And the Tories are getting their alibi ready for a poor result, telling The Spectator that because the by-election in is Labour's heartland "nothing less than a convincing Labour win will do".
But the bigger question is whether Ukip could do the unthinkable and beat Labour to win the seat.
There are signs that Labour are nervous about an upset. They have limited Ukip’s time to mobilise by calling the by-election so soon, just five weeks after Goggins's death.
Then there are the "don't be complacent" warnings from northern Labour MPs who have clearly got a whiff of Ukip's appeal to traditional Labour supporters.
John Healey, who was in charge of the party’s campaign in Rotherham, where Ukip amassed a quarter of the vote, says Farage's party is drawing on those people "not bored, but angered by politics".
Writing for PoliticsHome, Healey says Labour must take the Ukip threat seriously and come up with measures to counter them. Crucially, he says, Labour have to show “we understand their concerns". He believes Ed Miliband has made a good start with the cost of living campaign, but thinks there is more to be done.
Another concerned Labour MP is John Mann, who represents the Nottinghamshire constituency of Bassetlaw. He says the threat needs tackling in different ways in different parts of the country. In the industrial North he says there should be billboards “with Farage holding his Thatcher mug, quoting his support for Thatcher’s de-industrialisation – crude but effective. We can expose Ukip for their love of bankers and their hatred of the NHS.”
As a result of such warnings, Labour is testing out specially drafted anti-Ukip leaflets in Wythenshawe which argue that Farage is not on the side of the working class.
The leaflets focus on issues such as Ukip's tax policy, its plans to break up public services and repeal workers' rights, and its attitudes to equal pay. They emphasise how Ukip takes European Union cash, but does not turn up to vote or represent British interests in the European Parliament.
But will this work against a Ukip candidate - Bickley - with impeccable working–class credentials?
One theory, assuming Ukip can come second on 13 February, is that the threat from Farage's party in seats like Wythenshawe is longer-term. If Labour win the 2015 general election and then suffer a typical drop in popularity by the time of the following general election, Ukip will be poised to exploit their weakness.