MIDDLETON, United Kingdom – It is fair to say that the whole British political establishment is watching Clacton today to see if Douglas Carswell’s gamble of defecting to UKIP and resigning will pay off. Less notable is the Heywood and Middleton by-election in Manchester, which may not have the glamour and drama of Clacton but could be even more significant.
The truth is we know UKIP are surging in places like Clacton, and even the most loyal Conservatives accept they are toast in seats like Thanet South. But UKIP can only really breakthrough if they can replace the Conservatives as challengers to Labour’s dominance in northern towns like Middleton.
At the last election UKIP polled badly here, they got just 1,215 votes and were even beaten by the British National Party. Despite myths to the contrary the Conservatives do well in the North-West of England and Labour’s majority in Heywood and Middleton is less than 6,000 votes.
Whatever the polls numbers say UKIP activists are mercilessly running the message that only they can beat Labour. They probably won’t, but a UKIP surge here would be a major breakthrough for the party and could make them genuine challengers in more middle class northern seats in Bolton and Bury.
For years Labour loyalists have trudged to the ballot boxes to vote for whoever happens to have a red rozette, whatever the calibre of the candidate. But there are large numbers of people in seats like this who would do anything to break Labour’s dominance. Many of them do not really care what the policies are, just as long as they can beat Labour.
If UKIP can successfully persuade disaffected voters that they are the party that can challenge Labour then they will start to win. They are already doing that in places like Rotherham, but there are bigger prizes to be had in the North-West.
So tonight when everyone is obsessing over Clacton keep a look out for Heywood and Middleton. If UKIP come anywhere near second they may have delivered the real game changing earthquake of the night.