Looking at things from the inside of UKIP in the final weeks of 2012, we knew that things were going our way. The internal drive to professionalise the party was slowly bearing fruit. We had a more coherent approach to campaigning, to building local branches and to fund raising. True this had not borne much in the way of productive fruit at the PCC elections of November 2012, but we did feel the campaigning had gone significantly better than in the General Election of 2010. I certainly thought that our efforts had been better organised and better targetted than before.
The only way, it seemed, was up. What none of us knew was that events were about to take a hand. In fact, they already had. While I was busy pounding pavements in the West Midlands others were fighting a very different sort of campaign down in Northamptonshire. It was a campaign that would confirm that the rise of UKIP was well and truly underway.
On 6 August 2012, Conservative MP Louise Mensch announced her resignation as MP for Corby and East Northants. She had won the seat for the Conservatives from Labour in the 2010 General Election. Her resignation was not a surprise as she had talked increasingly about the difficulties of combining motherhood with a political career – during an interview with the New Statesman in October 2011 she said she felt “stretched multiple ways” – but the timing of a forced by-election was something the Coalition Government would probably rather not have faced.
At first, UKIP was rather disturbed by the prospect of the campaign. By-elections are expensive things to fight. The most recent parliamentary by-election in March 2012 in Bradford West had seen us get 3.3% of the vote, down from 5.5% at Feltham in December 2011. The central party was gathering strength for the County elections of 2013, hoping to use good results then as a springboard for the far more important European Elections of 2014. An expensive by-election with an uncertain result in a constituency where we did not have a very good record was not really what was needed.
Nevertheless, political parties exist to fight elections. This was an election. UKIP would fight it.
Corby was an unusual seat. It is a marginal constituency split between the Labour stronghold of Corby and the more Conservative rural villages and towns of East Northamptonshire. It had a Conservative MP, William Powell, until 1997, when Phil Hope won the seat for Labour with a majority of 11,860. By the time of the 2005 General Election Labour’s majority had shrunk to 1,517. Louise Mensch won the seat back for the Conservatives in the 2010 General Election with a majority of 1,951.
The town is staunchly Labour. Of the 30 borough councillors, 23 are Labour, four Conservative and three are Liberal Democrats. This contrasts sharply with much of the rest of the constituency. East Northamptonshire Council has 40 members, of whom 35 are Conservative and only two Labour. Oundle, for example, is a pretty market town about nine miles east of Corby and has a public school and an international arts festival. The 14 members of the town council are non-partisan but the county councillor for the town, Rupert Reichhold, is a Conservative.
UKIP had no councillors at all. However, UKIP did have a local branch which was in a position to offer local information and local expertise. I was not at the meeting that they had with the national leadership just after the by-election was called, but I gather that they were fairly optimistic of getting a reasonably good vote.
from "The Rise of UKIP" by Bill Etheridge MEP
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