Whenever the South Shields by-election is actually held, the story will surely be about the performance of one party – UKIP. The Conservatives and Lib Dems appear to have conceded defeat before the campaign has even begun, and it is such a safe Labour seat that there will be no achievement for them if they do win.
In some ways, the pressure is actually on UKIP. If they underperform now, and finish in 3rd place or worse, the story will be about how their momentum has been checked, and that Eastleigh was a one-off. Let’s be clear – Eastleigh was far more fertile ground for UKIP than South Shields is on paper. With the Conservative and Lib Dems fighting out a seat where Labour were never going to be strong, there was always the likelihood of another party sweeping up disaffected Tories and former protest votes for the Lib Dems.
Does this really apply in South Shields? Personally, I think that UKIP will come 2nd, and fairly comfortably. The problem for them is, a lot of people will agree with this assessment, and 2nd place for UKIP will almost become the expected outcome. Suddenly, the narrative switches to ‘can UKIP win the seat?’, which is a completely different proposition.
If UKIP win South Shields, all bets are off. At the moment, I do not rate their chances of winning any seats at the next election very highly at all. However, if they can go from nowhere to victory in a safe Labour seat, then by-election or not, UKIP are suddenly looking like an increasingly serious proposition to gain some seats when the general election comes around.
The dilemma for UKIP is that if they start talking about seriously gaining the seat, then they are going to look rather silly if Labour manage to get their vote out, and win with a large majority. They need to effectively balance the notion that yes, they could win, but that it is an extremely tough challenge in such a safe Labour area. There is a fairly sizeable Conservative vote from 2010 for them to go after, but I think that the Lib Dem vote will be more likely to fall to Labour in South Shields than it was in Eastleigh.
It’s possible that they could persuade enough disaffected Labour voters over to make a real dent in their majority – the advantage for them in South Shields is that many Labour voters will see this as such a safe Labour seat that they can risk sending their vote elsewhere.
My personal opinion is that Labour will safely hold the seat. However, there are enough factors, as discussed above, to make this by-election potentially more exciting than it would be without the presence of UKIP. I’ll post up a detailed prediction closer to the time, when we have a better idea of the candidates.