By Matthew Goodwin
Much has been written about the parliamentary by-election in Oldham West and Royton, the first of the new parliament and one that follows the death of the popular local incumbent Michael Meacher. At first glance the seat looks like an ideal opportunity for Nigel Farage and Ukip, who at the general election in May emerged as the main opposition in the seat.
Since then a lot has happened to fuel the idea that a major upset in one of Labour's safest seats could be on the cards. There was the election of Jeremy Corbyn who has so far failed to enthuse the electorate and been successfully framed by his rivals as unpatriotic and a threat to national security.
Then there is the refugee crisis. Ukip failed to storm Westminster but since then events on Europe's borders have opened up a major new line of attack for the party. Images of chaos in Calais have helped push British public concern to record heights. For six months now, voters have told pollsters immigration is among the most pressing issues facing Britain.
And then there is the Oldham seat itself, a northern Labour bastion that looks like a microcosm of these wider trends - a strong working-class demographic, a history of public disorder around integration, and a growing number of disillusioned left behind voters who are already turning away from the main parties and toward Ukip.
Such features have led many to argue that Labour is about to experience a costly defeat. To lose a seat like Oldham West and Royton would certainly plunge Labour into a crisis of wholly new proportions. Many have also drawn comparisons with the nearby seat of Heywood and Middleton, another historic Labour stronghold where in late 2014 Ukip shocked onlookers by coming within 620 votes of defeating the centre-left. If that had happened it would have almost certainly brought a premature end to Ed Miliband's leadership. It will be a similar story in Oldham, they argue, where Ukip could go one step further by winning the entire contest. Unfortunately for them, such an outcome is unlikely and here's why.
I have no doubt that Ukip are pushing Labour hard in the seat and could achieve a strong second place finish. This is exactly the type of seat where Farage and his party have a track record. At the general election Ukip averaged the highest share of the vote in safe Labour seats while struggling in more competitive ones. This is what enabled the party to emerge as the main opposition in more than 40 Labour seats and also more than 70 Conservative ones, although almost all of these were safely held by one of the two main parties.
But this also sheds light on a problem for the Kippers. Voters, at least in the context of a general election, only appeared willing to back them in safer seats where the actual prospect of a Ukip victory looked unlikely. In more competitive marginal seats, voters tended to shy away from the insurgents. Lots of people flag the fact that Ukip are second in lots of seats but they often fail to mention that the party is typically 20 or 30 points behind the incumbent.
In those safe Labour seats in the north Ukip often appeared to draw strength not only from some Labour defectors but also disgruntled Liberal Democrats and Tories. The problem for Ukip was that in these seats Labour either held static or, as in Oldham West and Royton, it increased its vote as Ukip reshuffled the local political market.
It was a similar story across all of the by-elections that were held in Labour seats during the last parliament. On average Ukip increased its vote by 10 points, with a low of 1.4 points in Leicester South and a high of 34 points in Heywood and Middleton. The real losers were the Conservatives, who on average slumped by 10 points, and the disintegrating Liberal Democrats who slumped by 11. But across all contests Labour increased its vote by 9 points. Even in Heywood and Middleton, where Labour had a fright, its share of the vote held steady. Ukip simply wasn't able to rally enough votes to cross the line in seats where Labour, over generations, had built up a commanding position.
Now consider Oldham West and Royton. Not only is the seat more ethnically diverse than Heywood and Middleton, which already reduces the number of disillusioned white working-class voters available to Ukip, but Labour is also standing a popular local candidate who has strong links to minority communities and is campaigning on local issues.
Moreover, many of the Conservative voters in this seat are not blue-collar Essex-type Tories who warm to Ukip. Some are well to do, a bit like the Tories who failed to rally around Farage in Kent, and might conclude that they have a better chance by keeping Corbyn as the Labour leader rather than defect to an insurgent party that they dislike. Ukip would do well to cut the Tory vote in half but I doubt that it will win them all.
LAB betting price on Betfair Oldham market staying very solid. Currently a 77% chance. pic.twitter.com/Al37piP7iL— Mike Smithson (@MSmithsonPB) December 2, 2015
Now think about the numbers. Labour currently holds a commanding 55% of the vote, Ukip is on 21%, the Tories on 19% and Liberal Democrats on less than four per cent. It is easy to see how Ukip could dramatically close the gap on Labour, making inroads into Labour's base, winning over some Tories and hoovering up what few Liberal Democrats there are now in the seat. This is especially likely if turnout tanks though it is worth noting that Ukip has also failed to bear down on Labour in by-elections where turnout has crashed below the 30% mark.
But it's difficult to see how Ukip can win over enough votes for victory. To do so, it would need to achieve an enormous swing away from Labour and something to go fundamentally wrong with the Labour operation on polling day. It will likely be a very difficult night for Labour but not a catastrophic one.
Matthew Goodwin is professor of politics at the University of Kent and tweets @GoodwinMJ. He is co-author of the new book UKIP: Inside the Campaign to Redraw the Map of British Politics (Oxford University Press).
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