The odds show Labour still favourite to beat Ukip in the Heywood and Middleton by-election on Thursday, but that we’re even talking about it being contested is significant, given that the constituency I grew up in has been solid Labour for half a century. Polls show Labour comfortably ahead, but Ukip increasing its vote tenfold to 31 per cent. On a trip home the other weekend, I didn’t see many posters in windows and turnout will be low.
People in Heywood voted Labour on a tribal basis for decades, but as the years have passed and Labour has failed to deliver appreciable improvements, loyalty has been fatally weakened. The collectivist institutions that united the tribe have long gone. After 13 years of Labour government, the town’s economy in 2010 was no more viable than it had been at the end of the 1980s. The cotton mills that created the town were gone by the 1960s, and whatever industry remained was done for by thirty years of economic policy designed to serve finance rather than manufacturing. The retail distribution park on the edge of town employs 5000 people – near the M62, it’s well placed in the motorway network – but excellent transport links cut both ways: jobs in Heywood aren’t the same as jobs for people from Heywood, whatever the boosterish press releases from the council might say.
The town centre is full of shuttered shops, which has at least given both Ukip and Labour plenty of options when choosing office space to run their election campaigns from. York Street, it used to be said, held the world record for the most pubs on one thoroughfare. In the early 1990s there was one pub in Heywood for every 650 residents. That might explain why it’s a happy hunting ground for everyone’s favourite politician to have a pint with, if many of those pubs weren’t now closed, done for by declining disposable incomes, avaricious corporate landlords and a cavernous Wetherspoons.
What Heywood and Middleton have lots of are two core Ukip target groups: the elderly who have worked hard and paid in, and fear for the benefits they were promised; and single people in flats who are worried both that they may lose what little they have, and that this is as good as it gets. Labour has already lost a third of the votes it won in 1997. But what’s new is that the voters who were once disappointed in Labour are now angry with it for being a party either unwilling or unable to challenge the system to make it work for people here. Farage’s second-hand Littlejohn-isms and not-actually-true examples of ‘PC gone mad’ can only seem refreshingly forthright when compared to a cavalcade of career politicians speaking in the unreal argot of the PR-trained classes.
Labour looks set to win this time, but next May they’ll be fighting on many more fronts. In any case, this isn’t a problem of poor political resources, but deep political disenchantment. It’s been two generations in the making and will take longer than between now and the next election to fix.