It’s impossible to emphasise enough how much the management of expectations matters in politics. For the latest cautionary tale, just look at today’s by-election aftermath. The Conservatives lost a seat, but the defeat was widely expected. By contrast, Labour held a seat but because they’d been expected to walk it the very closeness of the result is causing serious problems for Ed Miliband.
However, as Paul wrote this morning the UKIP phenomenon is not evenly distributed across the country – playing from the Lib Dem handbook, Farage’s insurgents hope to win over different voters of different views in different places, which could make for a very mixed set of performances in the marginals. The purple peril are targeting more than ever before, informed by election data and a well-funded polling effort. Still, as various Labour MPs remind us UKIP still has the potential to disproportionately harm the Conservatives, offering Ed Miliband the chance of a pass into Downing Street despite his low standing and worse performance.
The really interesting question raised by the outcome in Heywood and Middleton last night isn’t about whether UKIP could win a seat off Labour come May. The possibility of a wildcard performance, unique local circumstances or a particularly good candidate doing so is certainly increased, but that could be a side show to the main affair.
Rather, if Labour can’t take their “safe” seats for granted it will pose a serious challenge to their campaign resources. MPs in seats like Heywood and Middleton are undoubtedly rattled after last night, and sitting MPs have more clout within a party than candidates – if they start to agitate for cash and people to help them fend off a UKIP threat (perceived or real, it doesn’t matter which) then it will be hard for Miliband to refuse.
We already know that Labour are relatively cash-strapped. They still carry sizeable debts from the Blair and Brown years, they have fallen out with some of their union donors, the troubled Co-Op Bank is wisely getting out of the game of mates’ rates support and major individual donors are displeased at the party’s direction and Miliband’s failings. Their bold claims to be targeting over 100 seats have faded away as they have come to face the fact that they can’t afford to run proper target seat operations in all of them.
If they then find themselves forced to divert resources into holding constituencies that they had assumed were unshakeable heartlands, then the amount they have left to spend winning new seats will inevitably reduce. With troops and resources tied up defending their base, their grand plans for expansion start to look a little more wobbly.
They could of course respond by soft-pedalling some seats in order to maximise the degree to which UKIP cause the same problem for the Conservatives – as they appear to be doing in Rochester and Strood – but of the two main parties, one is much better resourced and more able to deal with the challenge than the other.