Son of Irish immigrants looks set to take seat for Labour
Mike Kane expected to see off Ukip challenge
Labour leader Ed Miliband with candidate Michael Kane on the Wythenshawe and Sale East byelection campaign trail. Photograph: Gareth Fuller/PA
Mike Kane, Labour’s candidate in the Wythenshawe and Sale East byelection in Manchester, once piped footballer Roy Keane on to the pitch during the latter’s Cobh Rambler days.
By late Friday, if not earlier, Kane, the son of Leitrim and Roscommon immigrants, should be elected to replace former Northern Ireland Office minister Paul Goggins, who died in late December, in the House of Commons.
On Saturday, 100 party canvassers fanned out across the constituency from Labour’s Sale Road headquarters, next door to a cafe that had hosted Coronation Street star David Nielson the day before.
“Major politicians coming are one thing, but Coronation Street stars are the best of all,” chuckled Kane, who spent much of his childhood living just metres from where he is organising his bid to win a place in the Commons.
His father Joseph came from Lismacool, Elphin, outside Roscommon, and his mother, Kathleen McGirl, was born just outside Ballinamore, Co Leitrim. They came separately to Manchester in 1955.
“They met at a dance,” says Kane, as he drinks a mug of black tea. His parents settled in Moss Side/Hulme, before they were moved to Wythenshawe in the 1960s during Manchester’s slum clearances.
Biggest estate in Europe
Back then, Wythenshawe, which lies to the south of Manchester, was the biggest council housing estate in Europe.
“We had a two-bedroomed council flat. I shared a room with my parents until I was 10,” he remembers.
In 1980, the family moved to a house within sight of the cafe – a home they left for six-week summer holidays, fondly recalled, in Leitrim and Roscommon. “The overnight boat from Holyhead, arrival at the North Wall, across to Connolly Station and the train to Boyle, and then three weeks in each place, making hay,” he says.
His teenage years were spent in the now 65-year-old Fianna Pádraig pipe band, set up in 1948 by the first of the Irish emigrants who came to Manchester in the years after the second World War.
Kane is almost certain to be elected on Thursday. However, Labour’s decision to call the byelection so quickly – just six weeks after Mr Goggins’ death – is seen as a reflection of the party’s concern about the UK Independence Party.
The charge is denied, naturally. “We buried our dead and we called the election,” says Kane, who dismisses chatter about Ukip’s rise as idle talk of “the Westminster bubble” that is not reflected on the ground.
Ukip leader Nigel Farage spent three Saturdays in a row in Wythenshawe canvassing for votes, hoping his party could improve on second placings secured in a series of byelections in the last year.
Tellingly, perhaps, Farage was not in the constituency last Saturday, while Ukip’s candidate, John Bickley, bemoaned the influence of postal voting in British byelections
Bickley, though, has more than a point, since the use of postal voting has risen dramatically in recent years – a trend that benefits incumbent parties who are ready and able to call byelections.
Postal votes arrive in homes within days of the race beginning. For convenience, or because of declared party loyalties, many voters fill them in and return them immediately, effectively ending their interest in the election.
“I feel slightly nobbled,” says Bickley, who, like Kane, was born and raised in council housing in the constituency – though he left it when he started work.
“We’re not much more than half-way through and lots of people I am meeting have already voted. And some of them tell me that they would change their vote now, if they could.”
The lack of a local organisation and the inability to get in touch in time with postal voters were problems Ukip experienced in the Eastleigh byelection in Hampshire last year, so it has not tackled this problem.
In the Hampshire byelection, called after Liberal Democrat Chris Huhne pleaded guilty to perverting the course of justice, Ukip won the vote “on the day”, but the Liberal Democrats beat them easily on postal votes.
In the South Shields contest in May, a byelection that was called after Labour’s David Miliband left British politics, 10,350 of the 63,000 entitled to vote did so at polling stations; 14,431 cast postal ballots.
In this byelection, pollsters believe Ukip will get 15 per cent of the vote, perhaps more with a last-minute swing – putting it ahead of the Conservatives and the Liberal Democrats, but not within reach of Labour.
To be a serious challenger, Ukip has to set up local organisations, something that may be too difficult in all bar a few chosen target seats. On Saturday in Wythenshawe, it did have canvassers. However, Annie Murray had come from Dornoch, 50 miles north of Inverness.
In the eyes of those interested in caricatures, Ukip is composed of ex-Conservative Daily Mail readers, happiest in the golf club, or at Bomber Command reunions, endlessly complaining about foreigners.
Many of its membership do fit the bill, but, as Nottingham University academic, Matthew Goodwin points out, Ukip’s voters are often substantially different to those who join its ranks.
“There is a belief that the rise [of Ukip] is centred on disillusioned, middle-class, Eurosceptic Conservatives – that it is rooted around single-issue concerns. The conventional wisdom is wrong, very wrong. The insurgency that Ukip is leading against the establishment runs far deeper than day-to-day events in the Westminster village,” he argues.
“[Its] voters are male, pale, stale and financially-struggling voters, and I don’t mean to be flippant,” Goodwin told a London School of Economics gathering last month.
Equally, its support base is old, “almost exclusively white; heavily skewed towards men, heavily skewed towards Britons who left school at 16 and didn’t go back into education.
“It is the most heavily working class party now in British politics. It is not a second home for disgruntled Conservatives in the shires,” he says.
The Goodwin analysis – which argues Ukip is as much of a threat to Labour as it is to the Conservatives, particularly in north of England constituencies – is not accepted by Labour.
Instead, it insists Ukip is gathering support from one-time Conservatives in Sale, the better-off end of the Wythenshawe constituency, where it has its campaign headquarters. But it is not hurting the Labour vote.
Nevertheless, Labour took the threat seriously enough a few weeks ago. MPs were ordered to get to Wythenshawe and canvass. “And it wasn’t a request,” grumbled one.
Wythenshawe is not, perhaps, the best example of the threat posed by Ukip to Labour.
The late MP Paul Goggins was very popular, while Kane, a former primary school teacher, is deeply imbedded in the community.
Labour notes that Ukip has come second in Hampshire, Rotherham and South Shields. Yet it is no closer to winning.
The Conservatives, who are running a 26-year-old Church of England vicar, Danny Critchlow, as their candidate, will be happy to see Ukip show strongly, Labour suspects. Such an outcome would show that Ukip is a threat not just to the Conservatives.
Former Northern Ireland secretary Peter Hain is one who accepts that 2015 is a different land: “We are in a four-party fight. Anyone who does not understand that is living on a different planet.”
Indeed, Hain argues that the real focus should be on the local elections that will be held on the same day as the European Parliament elections this May, rather than on the number of MEPs Ukip gets. Councillors, not MEPs, build the roots that parties need to win Commons seats.
Sitting over a latte in the cafe across the road from his campaign headquarters, John Bickley says Labour has lost touch with its base. “My father was Labour. Every inch of him. He’d turn in his grave looking at what has happened to it.”
For now Mike Kane refuses to count his chickens but, equally, there is little point rejecting the notion that he will be an MP within days. “If it happens, it will be a great honour. I wish the parents were alive to see it. They left poverty in the west in the 50s and now their son is on the edge of becoming a member of parliament,” he says.