Newark by-election: will Ukip open the door to Labour win?
Nigel Farage might be on a roll – but his party is way behind in planning for this three-horse race
THE Newark by-election, caused by the resignation of Patrick Mercer MP, has been called for 5 June. We know Nigel Farage himself will not attempt to take the seat from the Conservatives. So the big question is: who will Ukip field as a candidate and does he or she really stand a chance of winning the party's first Westminster seat?
As we've been told umpteen times, Ukip can expect to be on a roll by then: it will be less then two weeks after the votes are counted in the European elections, when the right-wing anti-Europe party is expected to triumph.
Two out of three polls released this week have Ukip ahead of both Labour and the Conservatives in the Euro stakes. ComRes gives Ukip an 11 per cent lead over Labour while TNS-BMRM has them nine per cent ahead. YouGov has Ukip one point behind Labour but still six ahead of the Tories.
So far so encouraging for Farage. But the fact that Ukip has not yet named its candidate in the Nottinghamshire constituency is good reason for scepticism.
The Tory and Labour campaigns are already up and running in Newark. The Tories selected their candidate, Robert Jenrick, last year after Mercer resigned the Tory whip.
At that stage Mercer was merely under suspicion for taking cash for questions and had not yet been banned from Parliament – the humiliation that led to his resignation this week.
Labour picked their man Michael Payne a month ago.
The two big parties will field experienced teams who went head-to-head an hour down the A1 in Corby in November 2012 following Tory chatterbox Louise Mensch's decision to quit Westminster politics in 2012. That by-election was won by Labour (which could have a bearing).
Ukip's lead in the EU election polls is testament to the fact that its supporters are the most enthusiastic voters. A large slice of their support is older voters renowned for turning up at the polling booths.
There is, however, a world of difference between European elections and Westminster by-elections.
European campaigns are largely fought through the national media and the turnout is often as low as 25 per cent. This makes them ideal for Ukip and the blokish charisma of the party leader.
By-elections are enlivened by constituency visits by party leaders and front-bench stars but they are essentially street-by-street ground battles where the buzz words are voter ID, postal votes and GOTV (Get Out the Vote).
Success goes to the party with strong local roots, the most experienced professional organisers and the best volunteer activists. Good for Labour and the Conservatives. Bad for Ukip.
It’s true that Farage's party boasts two MEPs representing the East Midlands. But look closer at the 2009 European election results and the party’s share of the regional vote was just over 16 per cent - exactly the same as its national share of the vote.
This points to one of Ukip's biggest problems: its votes are spread evenly across the country. The established parties win because they gather their support in mountains and molehills.
At local level, both Nottinghamshire County Council and Newark and Sherwood District Council are Ukip-free zones. Between them, the two councils have more than 120 members: not one represents Ukip.
At the 2010 general election, Ukip polled three per cent in Newark - precisely 50 points behind Patrick Mercer for the Tories. Of course, Ukip will do better – much better - on 5 June, but a swing of more than 25 per cent is asking a lot.
Labour’s task looks easier. In Corby they won with a swing of 12.5 per cent from the 2010 general election result. In Newark they would need a 15 per cent swing.
That might sound like a mountain to climb. However, according to a projection by Electoral Calculus, Labour have dramatically narrowed the gap since 2010 because of Lib Dem voters - unhappy with their party sharing power with the Tories - switching to Labour.
With Ukip threatening to split the Tory vote, Labour could come through the middle and win the three-horse race in Newark.