Marching through the rain up towards Rotherham Town Hall, Neil Hamilton is insistent we were in the presence of the UK Independence Party’s first Member of Parliament. “You are looking at her backside now,” said the former Tory gallantly.
Striding ahead with a distinct spring in her step was Jane Collins, a former equine therapist who, in the wake of revelations that the Labour-run authority had removed three children from the foster care of two Ukip members, is suddenly being talked about as a possible winner in Thursday’s by-election.
The vote was called following the resignation of Labour’s incumbent Denis MacShane after he admitted wrongly claiming £7,500 in Parliamentary expenses.
Neil and Christine Hamilton were in town as two of Ukip’s highest-profile supporters, lending their support to Ms Collins, 50, who already has form at standing in safe Labour seats. In 2011 she came second in neighbouring Barnsley Central.
But despite mounting speculation that the anti-Labour protest vote could easily go her way, Ms Collins was refusing to get carried away: “I would absolutely love to win but I am a realist. That’s why I’m in Ukip which is all about straight talking.”
Overthrowing Labour’s 11,000 majority looks a tall order even if there are dark mutterings of the party facing another “Bradford Spring” as it did when George Galloway won the West Yorkshire stronghold this year for Respect.
Yet Ms Collins believes she can double the Ukip vote and squeeze into second ahead of the Conservatives. The party is campaigning on four issues: stopping uncontrolled immigration; ending tax on the minimum wage; preserving jobs and benefits for British people first and stopping paying into the European Union.
Rotherham Council has been run by Labour for the past 40 years. The South Yorkshire authority has also been accused of failing to act to prevent the grooming of young girls by gangs of older men in a case with parallels to that across the Pennines in Rochdale. Standing for Labour is the local children’s hospice chief Sarah Champion who has only been a party member for two years.
Her near total lack of political experience means she is free to criticise the council over adoption and grooming, but her selection did not go down well with the local party which staged a walkout when the Labour National Executive Committee revealed her candidacy.