Good signs for UKIP in Wythenshawe?

Nigel Farage Image copyright Getty Images
Image caption Nigel Farage's party has had much to cheer after recent by-elections

The Wythenshawe and Sale East by- election is dull.

There is no getting away from it. I have spent a day driving round this corner of southern Manchester and there is hardly a poster to be seen. The streets do not heave with canvassers.

The railway and metro stations are not flooded with earnest young politicos forcing leaflets into commuters' hands. And no one I have spoken to thinks the outcome is in doubt, namely that Labour will hold the seat easily, UKIP will come second, and the Tories and Lib Dems will fall behind.

So far, so straightforward: in a safe Labour seat where the party had a 7,000-plus majority in 2010; in a by-election being held quickly after the death of MP Paul Goggins; where Labour is expected to have gathered many postal votes already, much to UKIP's fury

But that is not to say that predictions cannot be wrong, nor that this contest is not important. For Labour and UKIP, the stakes are high.

For Ed Miliband, this is the first real electoral test of his cost-of-living campaign. He needs to show that this message resonates among Labour supporters enough to get them to come out and vote.


Local Labour folk admit they were a little nervous at the start of the campaign, fearful that UKIP might eat into their core support. But they insist their vote is holding up. And Conservative donor Lord Ashcroft's poll today suggests that is true, putting Labour support on 61% of the vote.

For UKIP leader Nigel Farage, the by-election is a chance to prove Labour wrong and demonstrate his party's ability to attract former Labour voters. He wants to reinforce his claim that UKIP is not just a subset of the Tory right but a party that can also appeal to what one aide called "the alienated, taken-for-granted, habitual Labour supporter".

So UKIP needs to show that it can do more than win support from the 20,000 or so people who backed the Tories or Lib Dems at the last election. And certainly that is the explicit aim: UKIP's literature is all targeted at Labour supporters it claims have been ignored by the party.

All this matters because, if UKIP can start taking serious votes off Labour, then that has interesting potential consequences for the general election. Three-way marginals where Labour is just ahead, with a sizeable unhappy Lib Dem vote that is ready to be squeezed by an anti-establishment party, could suddenly come into play.

UKIP is slowly building a record of solid second places in by-elections and hopes to do the same here. But it is first places in 2015 that it has its eye on. And it will need to take votes off all parties to do so.

Lord Ashcroft's poll suggests that UKIP still has some work to do to come a strong second and put a clear lead ahead of the Tories.

The poll puts UKIP on 15% and the Tories on 14%. But late surges are what UKIP is good at and there are seven days of campaigning left.

So next Thursday's ballot in Wythenshawe and Sale East might not quicken pulses but party strategists will read the runes very closely to see what conclusions they can draw ahead of a year of crucial European and local elections.