by Kevin Meagher
Everything about politics is relative and after a stinker of a week for Labour, it’s clear the Tories’ conference this week is going to be even worse after the shock defection of Rochester and Strood MP, Mark Reckless, to Ukip.
All those sneering gags about Ed Miliband that David Cameron had planned for this week will fall flat as the edges of the Prime Minister’s authority over his own party continue to fray and his future now firmly lies in the hands of Ukip’s “fruitcakes, loonies and closet racists”.
In saying that, it is only fair to concede that by resigning his seat as part of his defection, Reckless is allowing the electorate to determine what they make of his decision. It takes bravado, and, frankly, some measure of integrity to do so. Defecting Labour and Tory MPs have never taken the risk of triggering a by-election in such circumstances.
So this is a high-wire act for Ukip and if they fail to win Clacton in two weeks’ time and now Rochester and Strood, then they will land hard. But if they win, the political pay-off will be enormous, and their insurgency will quicken.
How should Labour react? Party chiefs need to make a quick calculation about whether they can benefit from a Conservative-Ukip dog-fight and sneak through the middle. Conversely, the risk is that failing to win this by-election will serve to dampen expectations about Labour’s ability to win southern English seats more generally.
In 2010, Labour came second in Rochester and Strood with 28.5 per cent of the vote. This belies the fact that the seat (or most of it before boundary changes) was represented between 1997 and 2010 by maverick Labour MP, Bob Marshall-Andrews.
But if not now deemed winnable, Labour should move quickly to rule out standing a candidate. Ukip didn’t field anyone against Reckless in 2010 because of his strong Eurosceptic credentials. Labour should recycle the tactic for its own benefit.
This has two effects. First, it guarantees the race turns into a slugfest between Reckless and the Tories and, just as importantly, it insulates Labour from the charge that it isn’t making headway in seats it once used to hold. (A stark reminder is Newark, which Labour held between 1997 and 2001, yet could only manage a dismal third place in last June’s by-election).
In fact, putting up token resistance could see Labour aid the Tories in holding the seat, with Anthony Wells from UK Polling Report cautioning that it won’t be a “walk in the park” for Ukip. Better to give Cameron a few more of those sleepness nights about Ukip that Ed Miliband joked about last week.
Kevin Meagher is associate editor of Labour Uncut