Labour and Ukip go at it hammers and tongs in wake of Rochdale
Manchester Letter: Heywood and Middleton could be worst place in England for Labour
Labour leader Ed Miliband and his wife Justine Thornton arrive at Salford Cathedral for the funeral of Labour MP Jim Dobbin on September 20th. The party had already selected its candidate to contest Dobbin’s Heywood and Middleton seat. Photograph: Oli Scarff/Getty Images
In death, Dobbin, who died on September 6th during a visit to Poland, has become the catalyst for a byelection that is quietly terrifying the upper reaches of the Labour Party.
No party ever wants a byelection, but Heywood and Middleton is, possibly, the worst place in England for Labour to defend its flag.
The constituency includes the western fringes of Rochdale, a town still struggling under the weight of a trial two years ago which saw a group of Asian facing charges for grooming nearly 50 white girls for sex.*
Since then, the disclosures in Rotherham that Asian gangs abused 1,400 mostly white English girls while social services and police stood on the sidelines have ignited concerns across the North of England.
Last February, Labour had to defend Wythenshawe and Sale at the other side of Manchester after the death of the popular former Northern Ireland Office minister, Paul Goggins.
There, Labour hurried to pick a candidate and call the byelection, fearing that the UK Independence Party would threaten. Within a week it had calmed down, since the Ukip challenge fizzled out.
Meanwhile, the Heywood seat will be put to the vote on the same day as the Clacton byelection, called following the defection of Conservative MP Douglas Carswell to Ukip.
Carswell, barring miracles, will win, based on his Ukip ties and his popularity with locals in the grim Essex town. But that is already factored into Westminster’s arithmetic.
Heywood and Middleton, however, is a different matter. As in in Wythenshawe, Labour hurried to pick a candidate. In fact, it didn’t even wait for Dobbin’s burial.
Given the battering that Labour has taken in Rochdale over its handling of the child- grooming scandal, the local constituency organisation is, understandably, reeling.
It had wanted a local candidate chosen, but Labour HQ put forward a number of southern-based hopefuls, including former BBC Countryfile presenter Miriam Reilly.
No locals made the shortlist, while the opportunity of putting forward a Manchester-based lawyer, Richard Storer, who has represented some of those abused in Rochdale was, rather oddly, rejected as well.
In the end, Labour chose a councillor who lives a few miles outside the constituency (Liz McInnes), but the campaign around her has already begun to suffer jitters.
In May, Labour won 46 per cent of the votes cast in the Rochdale Borough Council elections. The Conservatives came second with 21 per cent, and Ukip third with 17 per cent.
However, these numbers tell only part of the story, because Ukip’s best results came in the districts that make up Heywood and Middleton. In West Heywood, for example, it was just 23 votes behind Labour.
The child-grooming scandal guarantees that Heywood will be a brutal fight given Ukip candidate John Bickley’s decision to go early for the jugular in campaign literature.
“Labour’s betrayal is no more apparent than with the young white working-class girls of Rotherham and Rochdale where rather than upset immigrant communities, years of abuse were ignored and complaints swept under the carpet,” he declared.
Political gainSimon Danczuk
Labour has little defence: too often, the girls were regarded as “white trash”, while social services and police feared accusations of racial bias if they investigated.
Bickley’s message would provoke a negative response inside Rochdale itself, where more than a quarter of the population is Bangladeshi or Pakistani, but Heywood and Middleton is a different matter.
There, just four in every 100 are Asians. Most of the rest are white working class, the very constituency political researchers such as Philip Cowley have said for months are ready to tip Ukip’s way.
Labour is defending a 6,000 majority. However, resentment over immigration, the Rochdale scandal and economic grievances all feature on the doorstep.
Already, some in Labour imagine the nightmare scenario: a Ukip victory, an outcome so incredible that it would throw every prediction for Election 2015 into the dust.
The resentments influencing opinion in Heywood are to be found across the north of England. If Jim Dobbin’s seat goes then nowhere is safe. For Labour, Heywood and Middleton must not fall.
*Sentence amended from the print version September 26th to include further details.