Meanwhile, in Heywood and Middleton UKIP gave the Labour Party kittens by running it extremely close. Seeing a 6,000 majority collapse to merely 600 is far from a comfortable experience. And so in some quarters its panic stations. We need to listen!" "We need to talk about immigration!" "We need to nationalise the top 100 monopolies!" First off, there are a couple of local factors in play. As Paul notes, there was a whiff of shenanigans gone awry in the selection of Liz McInnes. Such stuff doesn't matter at general election time, but it absolutely does when it comes to by-elections which, as we know, are susceptible to protest voting. With Brewer's Green trying to stitch it up for Harriet's mate, they paraded Westminster cynicism in front of a northern electorate not generously disposed toward it. And if it was not for the Labour machine cranking into gear, well, the consequences don't bear thinking about. The second was the local campaign focus on the NHS. All very worthy and no doubt chosen because received UKIP wisdom is privatise the lot, but it's ostrich-like behaviour to avoid countering UKIP's racist nudge, nudge, Labour-are-the-paedo-party attack lines. If Labour want to win it needs to try leading on issues. Including difficult issues.
The actual result was much closer than anyone forecast but I am not at all shocked UKIP turned in a credible second place. As noted before, the Corby by-election in 2012 was the last time we enjoyed "normal politics". Since then, regardless of incumbency, UKIP have come strong seconds in every parliamentary by-election. Number twos they may be, they have managed to successfully transform themselves into a catch-all, populist anti-politics protest party. Just like the BNP at its height, the political content as such doesn't matter to your casual UKIP voter. What it represents is a middle finger to "them", a transient moment of asserting power and presence. When you want to give official politics a kicking, you grab for the closest steel toe-capped boots to hand.
What can we do to mitigate UKIP's appeal to our people, and start reaching out to other voters who've previously not given Labour time of day?. Having pushed 'more Tory than Tory" literature locally here with mixed results, the national party are also doing the same. The problem is that ex-Labour voters may respond, but the bigger prize for UKIP is monopolising the large working class vote that does not vote Labour. Likewise the finger-wagging liberalism of the SWP's 'Stand Up to UKIP' front is as patronising as it is counterproductive. No silver bullets and holy water can slay it outright, the battle to contain and smash up UKIP wherever it gets a toe hold is a slog. A long-term slog. Simple, hopeful messaging, good policies and fewer clueless ex-wonks as MPs and candidates are a start. But the street by street, house by house scrap we have to have cannot work without showing that politics can work. When Labour pledges, for example, to have 200,000 houses built per annum by 2020 it had better deliver. An £8/hour minimum wage in the same time frame - meet and exceed it. And as it has been promised as a day one act, the abolition of the bedroom tax should be the first item of business before a Labour-ruled House. If Labour in local government is sticking up for people rather than blandly passing on the cuts, it needs to shout about it.
Even that is not enough, however. A weak labour movement and an impoverished civic culture mutually condition one another. If Labour wants to win, if Labour want to rip out the anti-politics rot it needs to stop acting as one dull, technocratic option among others and remember that it is a movement and a constituency in wider society that is also the repository of the general interest. Until that happens, for all the time this simple insight is "forgotten" by the great many of Labour activists and politicians the longer and deeper UKIP's poison will sink.