12 lessons from the Newark by-election campaign

Newark Image copyright BBC News

Newark lies at the heart of Middle England, geographically, historically, politically.

It is here that for centuries the Trent and the Fosse way has brought people and prosperity. It is here in this battle-strewn corner of Nottinghamshire that King John died and Charles I surrendered. And it is here that the Liberals, Conservatives, and Labour have in turns held a constituency that has reflected changing political moods.

In recent years, the Tories have held sway, securing a 16,000 majority at the last general election. But a town once besieged by Cromwell's army is now being invaded by what UKIP call their people's army, flush from the success of their campaign in Europe.

Having spent a couple of days on the ground observing the campaign for next Thursday's by-election, here are a few thoughts:

1. The Tories are giving it all they have got. One MP involved in the campaign told me: "If we lose this, it won't be for want of trying." The walls of their campaign headquarters are covered with rolls of honour signed by every MP who comes to campaign, each time they make a visit. All have been ordered by the whips to come to Newark at least three times. And these MPs are not being used to discuss high policy with the electorate, they are there to deliver leaflets like anyone else. And boy, have the Tories spent a lot of money on leaflets, sometimes delivering different ones on successive days, tailored specifically for each village, each post code. The campaign offices - and yes, there are several - bustle with energy as people come in and out to pick up fresh instructions and leaflets.

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2. The Tories are enjoying the campaign. This is a party which has had to endure four grinding years of coalition, trimming to Lib Dem sails, a party which has just suffered quite a defeat in the euro elections. They now have a chance here in Newark to campaign as pure Conservatives on a Conservative agenda, and potentially get some revenge on UKIP. For a Tory, what is not to like?

3. Not all Tories are exuding complete confidence. I spoke to one party member who had been doing a lot of telephone canvassing and he predicted the Conservatives would win by four votes. The party has little sense of what the 20,000 or so people who backed Labour and the Lib Dems in 2010 will do. One Tory official told me: "We are taking nothing for granted. We simply don't know at this stage what Labour and Lib Dem voters will do." They could stay at home; they could back UKIP; or they could vote tactically to keep UKIP out. No one knows. In other words, this election could be close.

4. For the Tories at least, it is all about getting their vote out. They are banking on the Labour vote holding up. They note that Labour did respectably in this council area in the European elections, getting 21% of the vote that they hope will sustain or even rise next week. If the Lib Dems get squeezed to 10% or less, that means the Tories' target is to win more than about 35% of the votes cast. In 2010, they got just over 50% of the votes. The Tories just need those supporters to do it all again.

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5. The Tories will benefit, for once, by having had a candidate in place for some time. Their man has been in situ since last November and will have met several thousand electors since then. That is quite an advantage over his competitors. The candidate himself is a safe pair of hands; young, unthreatening and lacking in flamboyance. He is not saying much, let alone anything embarrassing.

6. UKIP are taking some momentum from the European elections into Newark. They are still high on their new-found electoral success. Their staff smile a lot. They even gave the man from the Guardian a warm welcome. Their office in the high street - a very UKIP and very successful strategy - is buzzing. And many voters appear happy to shake hands and take a leaflet. The first postal votes landed on people's doorsteps earlier this week at a time when UKIP's Euro success was fresh in their minds.

7. From an utterly unscientific set of anecdotal conversations and interviews with electors, I found it quite easy to find people who were prepared to vote UKIP. There were former Labour voters looking for change. And former Tory voters looking for reassurance on Europe and a chance to kick David Cameron.

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8. But UKIP has until recently had its resources stretched around the country as it fought the local and European elections. That means it will have the advantage of using the so-called "marked register" of voters, telling them who took part in last week's elections, a vital bit of data that allows them to target their resources. But equally it means they have not had as much resource as usual to throw at this by-election. The deep pockets of Paul Sykes have been directed more at UKIP's national poster campaign than at Newark. UKIP may have some councillors on the ground here now, but many were elected last week and have yet to bed in.

9. The feel of Newark is of a place that is not naturally fertile UKIP territory. This is a bustling market town surrounded by well heeled villages and flourishing business parks. There is a mood of prosperity, of money brought in by commuters who work in Nottingham and London. The town centre ticks over with life unlike so many dreary high streets full of boarded up windows and charity shops. Fewer people here, perhaps, feel the economic vulnerability that some UKIP voters believe is being ignored by mainstream parties. Unemployment and crime is low, education standards above average. The constituency is not packed with older voters. There are some Polish and other Eastern European immigrants here but nobody raised this fact with me once. In other words, UKIP may have to work harder here for their votes.

10. UKIP on the ground are talking more about giving the Tories a good run, rather than taking them to the cleaners. The party's deputy leader, Paul Nuttall, told me: "We have just had the European elections, the local elections, where we performed pretty sensationally. If we get even within touching distance of the Conservatives, it proves that we still have momentum with us, but I genuinely believe we are really in with a shout." Either UKIP has unexpectedly and finally mastered the art of expectation management, or they are being realistic that Newark could be, as Nigel Farage said, a "bit of an Everest to climb".

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Image caption At Tory HQ in Newark, there is a roll of honour on the walls for visiting MPs to record their zeal

11. Both the Conservatives and UKIP claim that Labour has not been hugely visible on the ground for much of the campaign. But they say Labour is putting in more effort since last week's Euro results. I have seen several Labour MPs here out canvassing. Ed Miliband visited on Wednesday for the first time and plans to come at least once again. Perhaps after his visit to Thurrock earlier this week, the Labour leader wants to be seen both to be taking the argument to UKIP and making his argument to Middle England.

12. After this week's internal disarray, few Liberal Democrat minds appear focused on Newark. In the two days I was here, there was no MP or minister for me to interview. That tells a story in itself.

So who is going to win? I do not know and it would be foolish to predict. But what is clear is that the stakes are high. For the Tories, this is a chance to draw a line after some poor elections and claim that UKIP have reached their high water mark. For UKIP, it is a chance to reach that holy grail for any new party, a foothold in Westminster. For Labour, it is a chance to test its appeal in Middle England. And for the Lib Dems, it is simply another hurdle to get over before they can stop talking about Lord Oakeshott and try to move on.