|Nigel Farage (left) alongside Douglas Carswell, the man who could become UKIP’s first MP|
Casually disregarding the utter irrelevance of the Liberal Democrat Party Conference in Glasgow this week, the nation’s political commentators are focusing instead on the two impending by-elections, both of which are to be held this Thursday and both in constituencies where UKIP believe they stand a realistic chance of victory.
Despite the optimism of those within the UKIP ranks, these are two very different constituencies. Heywood and Middleton is a solidly Labour seat in Greater Manchester, encompassing parts of the deprived and ethnically diverse town of Rochdale, whilst Clacton is a largely white constituency on the Essex seaside favoured by socially conservative retirees. Although both areas contain significant areas of deprivation, the contrast between a deep-red northern seat and a staunchly right-wing one in the south should, in theory, present numerous difficulties for Nigel Farage.
Instead, these two very different constituencies have helped to create two very different UKIPs. The UKIP fighting in Clacton is the one we are most familiar with, the eurosceptic party standing up for traditional values, tighter immigration controls and populist patriotism. This is a message which fits in nicely with their candidate in Clacton, the area’s much-loved former MP Douglas Carswell who defected from the Conservatives in the summer.
It was this right-wing message which propelled UKIP to success in this year’s European and local elections, hoovering up the support of those former Conservative voters who have become disillusioned with mainstream politics due to three main issues: Europe, immigration and same-sex marriage. This is also the same message which the party will use to fight the upcoming by-election in Rochester and Strood, where the sitting Conservative MP Mark Reckless has followed Douglas Carswell in defecting to UKIP. Reckless’ seat is also situated in the home counties, although is somewhat more affluent than Clacton, and at the 2010 general election he won a majority of almost 10,000. Whether he can hang onto those votes and retain the seat under the UKIP banner remains to be seen, but he has already made it clear that he will be running on the party’s traditional conservative platform.
However, the local and European elections also saw UKIP make some headway in Labour’s traditional northern heartlands, and since then Nigel Farage has tailored his party’s message somewhat, ramping up the populism whilst toning down the Thatcherite ideology. His deputy leader, Paul Nuttall, has been forced to retract his support for the privatisation of the NHS, and several of the party’s more stridently right-wing policies have been repealed.
The fruits of this rebranding are not visible on the streets of Clacton or Rochester, where conservative orthodoxy wins votes from disaffected ex-Tories. However, one would be excused for seeing very little similarities between the UKIP fighting these seats and the very different entity attempting to seize Heywood and Middleton from Labour. The party’s candidate here is John Bickley, and he is poles apart from the Conservative defectors that Nigel Farage has been chasing in the south; Bickley grew up in Greater Manchester as the son of a trade unionist, and instead of originating from the Tory right he was a Labour supporter before switching to UKIP due to their policies on the EU.
This ex-Labour voter now has harsh words for his former party, but he is also running a campaign which has been deeply influenced by Labour culture and attitudes. Unlike in Clacton, UKIP’s Heywood and Middleton campaign has focused heavily on the future of the NHS and the bedroom tax, which UKIP want to abolish. Indeed, a recent UKIP campaign poster declared that Labour had let the people of Heywood and Middleton down by ‘planning to allow American corporations to take over the running of large parts of the NHS’ and letting ‘City Fat Cats make millions out of the privatisation of many NHS services.’ Quite a different message to Paul Nuttall’s musings on the benefits of privatisation.
By masquerading as a resurrected version of Old Labour in seats such as these whilst simultaneously employing a very right-wing programme of policies in soldily Conservative southern seats, UKIP have effectively split into two contrasting factions; northern UKIP and southern UKIP. This may be a pragmatic attempt to make electoral gains across the nation, but if he is not careful the former City trader and self-confessed Thatcherite Nigel Farage will soon find that he has created a deep divide within his party which could lead to its eventual destruction.