Ukip’s campaigning team has been working so hard to make it into second place in Wythenshawe and Sale East that when I arrived at their very purple shop in Sale town centre yesterday, the big panic was not so much a shortage of leaflets as a shortage of clean pants. One of the staffers has had to dash out to a nearby clothes shop as he’s spent so many hours working on the by-election that he hasn’t had any time to do any laundry.

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In the shopping street outside, a man in a fluorescent yellow tabard and a Ukip rosette hands out campaign leaflets. Round the back is a purple and yellow van that warns onlookers ‘Here comes Common Sense’. Inside an organiser is on the phone, complaining that one region hasn’t sent enough volunteers to knock on local doors and that the party will only ‘scrape’ into second if they don’t pull their socks up. Another staffer surveys a map of the constituency, which is updated so that local voters don’t sink under a pile of leaflets. ‘In Eastleigh, we had one man who came to our office with a big bag of leaflets and he said that was just from the Lib Dems,’ he says. Ukip is trying to mimic the ground wars that Liberal Democrats stage in by-elections and is pumping as many members into the constituency as possible.

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The party says it has had between 40 and 50 campaigners coming up every day. Farage himself has visited twice and will return next week for another day of campaigning and for the count, although he appears to be being used as much as a magnet for the party members, who love him, to travel from Falmouth, Inverness and the Isle of Wight to knock on doors. Neil and Christine Hamilton will visit on Monday.

The party is naturally focusing on Labour and is talking down the Tory campaign as non-existent (although while I was travelling on the Common Sense bus, Treasury Minister Sajid Javid and other Tory MPs were also campaigning in the constituency, and Chris Grayling visited earlier this week). It has attacked the working class credentials of the Labour party with the leaflet below.

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But it is also focusing on Ed Miliband’s record as a minister: arguing that his work in the Energy and Climate Change department led to the cost of living crisis that Labour now campaigns on.

The party’s opening gambit on the doorstep is on jobs, which it then links to immigration and Labour’s ‘betrayal’ of the working class on this front. Bickley also tends to remind older residents that there used to be a grammar school in the centre of Wythenshawe, as it gives him an opportunity to talk about Ukip’s education policy. The row over A&E services at the local hospital comes up, too. But it is striking that Ukip isn’t focusing its campaigning on hyper-local issues: most of the talk is about jobs in the national sense.

But the campaign literature itself suggests the party is trying to be all things to all men, and still keep the protest vote.The leaflet below shows it is trying to be a ‘none of the above’ party – although the Conservatives should be concerned that Ukip now campaigns on their planning reforms rather than their European policy.

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Some of its policies are also from the playbook of things that sound nice to voters but which are already possible, such as giving local people priority on housing waiting lists (a continually re-announced policy that Labour introduced in 2009 with a rather technical change to local authority allocations guidelines that no-one noticed – although Manchester Council is in fact one of the pioneer local authorities on this policy).

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Meanwhile Bickley himself says he first found Ukip interesting because he simply didn’t believe or trust the leaders of the two main parties in 2010. He joined Ukip in 2011 and only started campaigning nine months ago.

He’s neither right-wing, nor left-wing, he says, but he doesn’t seem quite comfortable with the suggestion that he’s centrist either. Neither is he that bothered by the party’s track record on policymaking, admitting that he hasn’t read the 2010 manifesto because in 2010 he was just a typical swing voter, not a Ukip member.

‘I have never read the manifesto,’ he says cheerfully. ‘It’s actually quite hard to find it now.’

He’s a reasonably gentle sort as he wanders around the streets of Sale East, knocking on doors and pushing leaflets through. ‘Hello,’ he says, slightly gingerly to a woman coming out of a neat terraced house. ‘Can I say hello?’ Fortunately she says yes, although he then realises she’s unloading groceries for a neighbour and decides not to bother her any longer.

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Travelling in the bus with him (along with a very large pile of wooden stakes for garden signs backing Ukip) are two young campaigners from the party who have taken time off from work and university to spend a week pounding the pavements in the pouring rain and freezing wind.

One of the problems Bickley encounters as he travels in the Common Sense bus is that people are either out or have already voted by post. Earlier in the week, Nigel Farage complained to the Electoral Commission that it was unfair that Labour had managed to get so many postal votes in. He said: ‘I do not think democracy is being well-served and fear that the voting process is now actually undermining the ability of constituents to hear and weigh up the alternatives being offered in a considered fashion.’ But the party has also taken out the advert below in the local press which hints at something more than just an advantage for the party moving the writ. It says:

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‘Give your postal vote to the Post Office not the Labour Party. Your postal vote will arrive this week. Remember – your vote is secret. DON’T let anyone ‘help’ you fill it in. DON’T let anyone ‘help’ you post it. (Please not: you WON’T lose your council House if you don’t vote Labour.) This advertisement is published by the UK Independence Party, in the interest of free and fair elections.’

The party is confident of second place when the Wythenshawe and Sale East electorate vote on 13 February. Ukippers are also pleased that coming second and beating the Tories is now less of a surprise than it used to be: they see it as a sign their party is finding a permanent place in the political landscape.

Tags: John Bickley, UK politics, UKIP, Wythenshawe and Sale East