On Saturday we published a map showing what would happen to Labour’s North East constituencies if Ukip made the kind of progress in our region that it made in Heywood and Middleton, the seat near Manchester that it just failed to take from Labour at last week’s by-election.
The bad news for Labour was that it showed them losing 11 constituencies to Ukip. The good news is that it won’t happen. Not yet.
Ukip was able to throw a lot of resources at Heywood and Middleton. It will not be able to summon up the same ground game in North East constituencies at the general election. It will concentrate its attention on seats that it has a realistic chance of winning. There are at least eight of those, none in the North East.
So no purple reign in the North East in 2015. But 2020 is a different matter - and next year’s general election plays a major role in a scenario that could play out over the next six years.
Labour’s party conference seemed to play to the view that the party leadership has adopted the so-called “35% strategy” for the 2015 election. This means the party would concentrate on securing its core vote and hoovering up some disenchanted Liberal Democrats. That would deliver it 35% of the vote at the election, enough to make it the largest party, though nothing like enough for a sweeping victory.
Nevertheless, if we wind forward to the end of May 2015, Ed Miliband is in Downing Street. Perhaps he has a small overall majority, perhaps he heads a minority government or a new coalition with the Liberal Democrats.
In the North East, Labour retain their 25 seats and perhaps take Stockton South from the Conservatives and Redcar from the Liberal Democrats. So far, so good.
Ukip, however, has had a good election. As well as a smattering of seats down south, they have racked up a series of second places in the North East as the Conservative and Lib Dem vote crumbles. In some of these constituencies, Labour’s majority is uncomfortably small.
Labour finds government difficult after 2015. The continuing need for austerity means they quickly start to disappoint the 35% of voters they tried so hard to cling on to. Ed Miliband doesn’t impress as prime minister.
In local elections in 2016, 2017, 2018 and 2019 Labour loses council seats. They start to look like a rabble. By the 2020 election Ukip has won seats on every North East council and in some they are the largest opposition bloc.
At the 2020 election Labour is swept out of office. North East voters - even Tory ones - know who to put their cross against to get them out. Labour loses 11 seats to Ukip...
OK, some of this still sounds unlikely. Ed Miliband might turn out to be better than we think. Many politicians have looked lightweight before they entered No.10 - Major, Blair and Cameron to name three recent ones. Once they are there they are heavyweights and will never be lightweights again.
Plus, this scenario assumes Ukip will hold it together, that they will be disciplined. That’s a big ask, though the party is certainly more disciplined now than it was even a year ago.
The academics Matthew Goodwin and Robert Ford, in their book Revolt on the Right, flagged up the appeal of Ukip to certain types of voter before many - including Ukip itself - quite realised it. People are now paying a lot of attention to their work. And though they don’t identify any North East Labour seats as being in immediate danger from Ukip they name five - Bishop Auckland, Stockton North, Hartlepool, Middlesbrough and South Shields - as among further waves of seats that Ukip could profitably target.
Bishop Auckland, where Helen Goodman won with just 39% of the vote in 2010, may turn out to be Ukip’s best chance, though party MEP Jonathan Arnott clearly relishes Blyth Valley.
There is one thing Labour can hold on to. It was often said in the last days of the Scottish referendum campaign that Yes voters were voting with their hearts, No voters with their heads. When it’s hearts versus heads, heads win - as they did last month. Ukip’s supporters are voting with their hearts, but heads may take over at a general election. The momentum that right now looks so formidable may be lost.
Labour has been accused in the past of taking its North East heartland for granted, though it would deny that it has ever done so. Ukip’s surge means that Labour must realise it certainly cannot afford to take us for granted now.