In Depth

Is Nigel Farage the right man to make Ukip a real political force?

Ukip can split the Tories - but failure to win over Labour voters in by-election exposes weak spots

Don Brind

THERE is no doubt after yesterday's by-election in Manchester that Nigel Farage's Ukip poses a real threat to the Conservatives - but what became of the challenge to Labour that was being promised last month?

Then, Farage was hailing Ukip's candidate in Wythenshawe, John Bickley, as a local boy “from a staunch Labour background" while The Spectator claimed the seat was "a perfect location" for Ukip "to underline its claim that it can steal discontented voters from Labour just as easily as it does from the Tories". 

In the event, Labour's Mike Kane swept to victory yesterday with an increased share of the vote. The swing from Labour to Ukip - if you can call it that - was a paltry 1.65 per cent. 

This raises two big questions - is Ukip too amateurish to supplant the Lib Dems as the third force in British politics and is Farage the right leader to take the party forward?

Yes, Ukip increased its share of the vote in Wythenshawe from a meagre three per cent at the 2010 general election to 18 per cent yesterday, knocking the Conservative candidate into third place, but that was nowhere near the 28 per cent of the vote achieved in Eastleigh or the 24 per cent in South Shields. It’s actually Ukip's worst result since Croydon North in November 2012

As for the challenge to Labour, managing expectations is an important political skill and it's one Farage does not appear to possess. 

Labour set an early date for the by-election, caused by the death of the well-liked former minister Paul Goggins, and the constituency on the southern outskirts of Manchester benefited from Labour’s impressive organisation in the city.

Farage has been complaining that his party was at a disadvantage because postal ballots were sent out within three days of the election being called, giving Ukip little chance to campaign to change voters' intentions. "I have been on benders for longer than the opening of the nominations and the start of the postal ballots. This has been a farce," he said.

But mobilising postal voters is a key aspect of modern elections and Farage’s complaint will be scoffed at by professionals in the other parties as evidence of Ukip’s amateurism

poll published by Lord Ashcroft a week ago suggested - correctly, in hindsight - that Ukip’s organisation simply wasn’t good enough and that they didn’t work hard enough in contacting voters. 

If Ukip hope to supplant the Lib Dems, they need to learn from Lord Rennard. Currently estranged from his party, he was the man who built Lib Dem support through what was dubbed “pavement politics”, winning support street by street, ward by ward, by taking up voters' gripes, big and small. Spectacular by-election results were the icing on the cake, driven by the willingness of Lib Dem activists to converge en masse from miles around.

By contrast, Ukip's approach is top down and far too dependent on Farage’s blokish, suburban brand of charisma. 

But does Farage’s flop – against Labour - in Manchester mean that Ed Miliband's party has nothing to fear from Ukip? There are plenty of Northern Labour MPs, especially those representing areas of industrial decline, who will say emphatically No – if not at the 2015 election, then in the future assuming Labour return to power next year.

Their view is supported by academics Robert Ford and Matthew Goodwin who contribute the Ukipwatch blog at the Daily Telegraph. “Labour may currently be smiling as Ukip drains support from the Conservatives, but the tables may soon turn if Ed Miliband enters 10 Downing Street in 2015, and his party again becomes the focus of voter resentment.” 

Describing Ukip as “Britain’s most working-class party” they question the image of the “the average Ukipper as a ruddy-faced, middle-class, middle-aged golf club bore, who lives in a suburban semi-detached house in the Home Counties and … bores his neighbours to death by droning on about the evil Eurocrats in Brussels. But this stereotype could scarcely be further from the truth.

“Ukip's supporters look more like Old Labour than True Blue Tories. Ukip's supporters tend to be blue-collar, older, struggling economically, and often live in poorer, urban areas, with big pools of support in the Labour heartlands of the North. Middle-class suburbanites do not dominate Ukip. They shy away from it.”

They say the gap between myth and reality has come about because there's a difference between Ukip's activists and their voters. “The kind of Ukipper the media are most likely to encounter very often are middle-class, southern and suburban former Tories (particularly the Ukippers you are likely to stumble across in the Westminster village, where most journalists congregate)."

This description fits Nigel Farage to a T. It raises the fascinating question: to make progress in the longer term, will Ukip need a new leader more in tune with the lifestyle and aspirations of its supporters?

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