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The Leigh by-election will be the real test for Ukip

Ukip are in the midst of an expectation management exercise in Stoke-on-Trent Central. As Paul Nuttall battles to take Tristram Hunt’s old seat from Labour in this month’s by-election, the Ukip leader has said a loss wouldn’t be ‘terminal’ as the constituency is not even in the party’s top 50 target seats.

There’s good reason for Ukip to get their excuses in early. Despite facing a lacklustre Labour candidate in arch-remainer Gareth Snell (not helped by an over-active Twitter account), Nuttall has hardly been welcomed to the area.

The party had hoped for a Brexit boost in the Leave constituency, but the Ukip leader’s decision to list an address he had never been to as ‘home’ on his nomination form has upset locals. Activists complain that their campaign efforts are met with apathy on the doorstep.

There are also murmurs of discontent over Ukip’s ground game — or lack thereof — with the party missing Chris Bruni-Lowe, who was involved in the successful Rochester and Clacton by-election campaigns.

But Nuttall’s downplaying of his hopes for Stoke is somewhat disingenuous. His pitch as Ukip leader was that he could speak to disillusioned Brexit-backing working class Labour voters in the north.

Stoke has plenty of them. Should Nuttall fail to woo them, it will pile pressure on Ukip to perform in Leigh. With Andy Burnham on track to win the Greater Manchester mayoral election in May, the Labour MP for Leigh is expected to stand down and trigger a by-election. This is an area that, too, voted heavily to Leave (Wigan backed Brexit by 64pc), with Burnham previously warning that Labour has to become ‘more Hull and less Hampstead’ in order to keep constituents on side.

Unlike Stoke, Ukip have had the constituency in their sights for some time now. Before Hunt resigned, it was the seat that Nuttall said he had his eye on. Rumours that Paul Mason, the journalist-turned-Corbynite-revolutionary, hopes to be Labour’s candidate will only help Ukip’s cause. The Leigh branch of Ukip are on manoeuvres too — organising weekly street stalls in order to engage with the public ahead of the local council ballot in May.

Should Ukip fail in the Stoke by-election, Nuttall will need to show his party can deliver Leigh to prove that Ukip are able to give Labour a run for their money in its traditional heartlands. If he fails, Nuttall won’t be able to blame it on the constituency not being high enough on the party’s wish list.

Source The Spectator 


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