Well, the votes have duly been weighed in Wythenshawe and Sale East, and the expected Labour victory has come to pass.
The top line result is no surprise, but there is some serious food for thought in the details of the outcome.
First there’s UKIP.
As we’ve covered in the past, the insurgent party are still professionalising, and testing out different approaches. Having started the year predicting a major incursion into Labour territory, I suspect they will now be smarting somewhat after underperforming compared to recent by-elections.
In a way this is all part of their experimentation with the Lib Dem playbook – to overcome the curse of the “wasted vote” argument, they need to say “Only UKIP can beat [insert party] here”. Lord Ashcroft’s poll last week showed some signs that was working, with a decent proportion of their voters picking them for tactical reasons. If you get overconfident, though, then it becomes easier to fall short -
Another thing they have borrowed from the Lib Dems is the approach of being all things to all people. While fighting as a Thatcherite, neo-liberal party in the South of England, in Wythenshawe they unveiled Red UKIP, promising to “protect your benefits” and so on.
There’s limited evidence that the approach worked, but it poses a threat to their identity as a party. The Lib Dems used these tactics when their USP was simply not being either Labour or the Conservatives. UKIP’s USP, on the other hand, is as a supposedly truth-speaking party of principle, which doesn’t simply say anything to get elected – how well can that message hold up when their campaigning on the ground contradicts it?
If I were Nigel Farage, I’d be putting the champagne back in the cellar.
That’s not to say that Conservatives should be happy with how our campaign went. In fact, we’d be justified in feeling quite puzzled by some of the decisions that were made.
Expectations were low in a solid Labour seat, and the party played them down even further. Expectation management is a tried and tested tactic, and there’s nothing wrong with it in a by-election like this.
Similarly, there was no case for pouring money into the battle – we have 40 target seats to campaign in ahead of 2015, and those are rightly the focus.
That doesn’t explain or excuse what looked to me like a shockingly pedestrian and unambitious message, though.
Activists who were on the ground report a good turnout from hundreds of volunteers, and by all accounts the candidate, Revd Daniel Critchlow, is a good, local guy who is engaged with the community. With that decent footing, why did the campaign end up looking and sounding like a local council by-election?
Most campaigns centre on three key messages. There are plenty the party could have chosen which could have played well in Wythenshawe and/or in Sale – make sure no-one on benefits earns more than someone in work, don’t let Labour wreck the recovery, let the people decide on the EU…take your pick.
Instead, these were the three messages chosen: fill potholes, cut street crime and clean the streets more. Those are all nice things, but with so much at stake at the Westminster level is this really the best way to stand up for our record?
It’s possible that those designing the campaign thought this was the best way to avoid Labour holding up their likely victory as a “referendum on austerity”. Mike Kane, the new Labour MP, did so anyway, so if that was the idea then it didn’t really work.
No-one went into this by-election expecting or even considering a Conservative win, but that’s no reason to fight it with such a lacklustre message. Just because somewhere is not a marginal does not mean we should pull our punches.
Doing so was unfair to the candidate, a disservice to the good work being done nationally and, just as importantly, a missed opportunity to test how potent new messages might work in traditional Labour territory. A lot of people put a lot of hard work into this fight, but the strategy decided by those at the top seems to have simply been to turn up.