What Stoke definitively showed was UKIP is something less than a political party. As a 30,000-strong army of Nigel Farage groupies, re-orienting themselves as a "proper" force without a domineering personality to cling to was always a big ask. Such formations tend not to attract strong people. It's a club for careerist losers, lickspittles, and human-shaped voids. Anyone with an ounce of talent and ability, such as the unlamented Steven Woolfe, tend not to last very long. And why vacant oafs like Paul Nuttall can rise without a trace. When the big daddy figure of these one-man populist parties (and it's almost always men, Marine Le Pen and Pauline Hanson notwithstanding) depart from the scene, which is what Farage is doing with his LBC/Fox News/White House stints, what is left behind is a shell, a simulacrum of a political party. It looks like a party, campaigns like one, complies with legislation (well, in UKIP's case, after a fashion), but there is no substance. Only crisis.
In UKIP's case, the problem could be terminal. Despite what lazy commentators and professional doom mongers say, the kippers have always posed the Tories more of a problem. At its strongest, they weren't so much a threat to Labour as a catch-all protest party that, in Labour areas, primarily consolidated the anti-Labour vote. Under Farage, they almost got there. When the Tories underwent a major organisational collapse after the passage of Equal Marriage legislation and UKIP announced its turn to the workers, this was the closest it came to building a viable base. However, without the solidifying force of Farage's personality, this coalition between disgruntled Tories and lumpenised Labour was destined to fray. Theresa May knows well that facing right on Brexit is enough to win back enough of the kipper coalition to see her safely through in 2020. Also clawing at UKIP's base is, somewhat counter-intuitively, the Liberal Democrats who are making inroads again into the none-of-the-above vote. UKIP is shrivelling as they empty of social content, leaving behind nothing but a useless gaggle of careerists stranded sans their tickets to the Euro gravy train.
This absolutely was on show in Stoke. They threw so much money at the campaign that Nuttall crashed through by-election spending limits and now smokes like a car wreck by the side of the road. Sundry Labour supporters await their returns with interest. Away from the minutiae of technicalities, UKIP's effort was probably the most fruitless and amateurish I have ever seen. Door knockers repeatedly canvassed the same area rather than spreading out across the constituency. For instance, the kippers came down the drive way of one of our members seven times. While out and about on the trail, rather than work toward pre-determined routes they would peel off and follow Labour canvassing teams. On the day itself, they had tellers dotted about polling stations taking voter numbers, but had no Voter ID so they could return that information and knock out their promises. The kipper mobile festooned with UKIP imagery driving round day after day, bampots wandering around Hanley in union jack suits and sandwich boards accosting randoms about immigrants and Brexit ... they gave an appearance of a campaign without mounting a campaign. I've heard Tories complain about the kippers' lackadaisical attitude during the EU referendum, and firsthand, we now know what they were talking about. Not that they really needed to mount one. While the national press were pumping out the usual hard right idiocies and their helpful friends in commentland were talking up Nuttall's chances, they also got a bit of a hand from the local paper. For example, when the news broke about his Hillsborough lies, this is how they chose to report it ... by concentrating on Gareth's old tweets. And they wonder why, in a Labour city, their circulation is on a downward spiral - I know lifelong Sentinel readers who've cancelled their subscription over their coverage.
A party without substance, a structure without structure, their loss means a permanent downgrade to council by-election also-rans is on the cards, and nothing less than the abolition of immigration controls or direct rule from Brussels will jumpstart their clapped out motor again. If only there was someone who'd been saying UKIP were born as a declining force while everyone else was tipping it as the new party of the working class ...
Concerning the Conservative vote, in Stoke Central it is worrying that the kipper/Tory vote easily eclipses that achieved by Labour. It is a warning but not an existential threat, at least not yet. Some wiseacres have argued that if either UKIP or the Tories had stood aside then one of them would have taken the seat. That's pretty much the same idiot empiricism that had UKIP down as a shoe-in because Stoke was Britain's "Brexit capital". This would unlikely be the case for two simple reasons. First, there are plenty of Tory voters that wouldn't touch UKIP with yours. In the Conservative imagination, they're a lumpen rabble of uncouth vagabonds stirring up the dangerous classes with their anti-immigration agitation and crude nationalism. For a section of the kipper vote, especially that dropping off from the Labour Party, there's more chance of The Canary becoming a Blairite mouthpiece than some of these lending the Tories their votes. They may not like Labour, some may harbour a deep antipathy, but coming from Labour backgrounds they know the Conservatives are the enemy. They know what Thatcher did to Stoke-on-Trent when she hammered steel and shut down the mines. There are parts of the city where the blue rosette is still absolutely toxic.
These irreconcilables cannot reconcile, but this cannot be relied on forever. After years of decline, the Tory switch back to one nationism is reviving the party. It's certainly having the desired effects on the polls. Labour's way forward is the road through the same territory. The Tories want to fight on the turf of security, of dispelling collective social anxiety. This should play to our strengths, but doesn't because, unfortunately, Labour from Blair through to Jeremy don't take this issue seriously enough. This must change or we will never win again, regardless of who leads.