Heywood and Middletown: UKIP’s Drake-like foray into the once inhospitable north of England

Okay, so what to say about UKIP’s performance last night. Let me gloss over the Clacton byelection where since, despite Douglas Carswell’s claim for it to be him ‘recalling himself’ it was in fact was a UKIP hold rather than a gain from the Tories.

The Heywood fight was much more interesting politically.

First, the issue for Labour was more to do with the turnout rather than the fact they nearly lost. Spelling that out: 35% means that 65% of your electorate could not be bothered to save you from the clutches of a rightist insurgent political challenge from the warm beer drinking south.

As if to demonstrate the party’s shortsightedness on the matter, the winning candidate (who nearly lost) demonstrated the foibles of the apparatchik by angrily claiming her near loss as a glowing endorsement of Ed Miliband’s leadership.

Sure, the Tories got squeezed. Lib Dems only just picked up their deposit. And indeed on a falling turnout Labour picked up a 1%. And they needed every one of those defections (from Lib Dems and wet Tories) to edge ahead of her UKIP rival.

The worrying thing from a Labour pov is that their new MP seemed completely oblivious to the inherent danger of the situation. Her blushes saved only by the similar (if more graceful) difficulty experience of the Essex Tory MP Pirti Patel to explain away the warm beer drinking UKIP threat further south.

A win is a win after all. As my old dad used to say, people quickly forget second placers.

So what do we draw from this? Two things. First this from Lord Michael Ashcroft on Twitter yesterday:

Second, there is this very telling take from Mickey Kaus with an intelligent US perspective:

…maybe UKIP has backed into an intriguing model for a 21st century First World party, namely fighting against all the modern forces pulling the economy and the culture apart.  The forces: Technology and trade increase income inequality (UKIP’s Nigel Farage: “The country’s got a big, big problem and in the course of the last decade the ‘rich’ have got remarkably richer.”) Uncontrolled immigration brings discordant cultures and lower wages, making it harder for unskilled workers to live traditional, ordinary middle class lives. Even if wages weren’t going down, it would be harder to have social equality when incomes depend increasingly on smarts, skills and knowledge. Income differences take on a nasty new edge. Endless, inconclusive wars — disorienting in themselves — increase the gap between military and civilian culture, between those who serve and those who don’t.

UKIP may recognize that in a society being fractured and degraded (for the majority) even very imperfect but functioning traditional statist programs like the NHS can provide a necessary structure. The obvious parallel is with the U.S. Tea Party’s often-mocked “Keep Your Government Hands Off Hands Off My Medicare” motif. That may not be ideologically coherent in traditional government vs. individual terms–or “Back to the Constitution” terms —but it is perfectly coherent in “stop all this unpleasant change” terms. Like the U.K., America has been deconstructing, and it sometimes seems as if the New Dealish/Great Society programs Medicare and Social Security are the only familiar structures of support anyone can rely on.

Humour and rationale only take you so far when dealing with the new, insurgent populists. The fact that they lack technocratic know how may only be a problem of time and current under capacity rather than a matter of unalloyed mendacity. The pitch they make scans well to a lot of people who are simply fed up with the centre, be it London or Dublin or Brussels continuing on with business as usual.

Some Labour MPs do get it. But the union’s foisting of the technocratic Miliband on the party will have costs once voters get over their aversion to voting away from home. Miliband’s inability to rouse them sufficiently to get to the polls ought to concern them rather more than it apparently does.

Like Drake’s raid on Cadiz, it may be recorded as little more than the singeing of the King of Labour’s beard. But hey, everyone in Dublin (and I confess much closer to home here on Slugger) thought Sinn Fein was finished in the south after 2007.

In tough times, the voters are looking for tough gestures more than bland assurances on gas prices. That kind of bland featureless populism can make you deeply unpopular over time.

Mick is founding editor of Slugger. He has written papers on the impacts of the Internet on politics and the wider media and is a regular guest and speaking events across Ireland, the UK and Europe. Twitter: @MickFealty