Police Commissioner election overshadowed by grooming

Shaun Wright Image copyright PA
Image caption Shaun Wright was eventually forced out of office - but who is in line to replace him?

The UK Independence Party is battering at Labour's door in South Yorkshire and the issue of mass sexual assaults on young girls in Rotherham is the sledgehammer being used to create the breakthrough.

It has become a particularly potent weapon in the run-up to the by-election to replace the Police and Crime Commissioner Shaun Wright who is the highest profile Labour casualty of the scandal so far.

That certainly is the strategy of UKIP leader Nigel Farage who went straight onto the offensive during a campaign trip to Sheffield supporting his candidate, former South Yorkshire police inspector Jack Clarkson.

In an interview with me for BBC Look North he stridently asserted that the total domination of Rotherham Council by Labour since World War Two had resulted in complacency and political correctness which left gangs of largely Asian men free to prey on young white girls.

Tragic mistakes

Labour says such a typically over-simplistic view from Mr Farage is grossly unfair. Whatever the merits of the argument it has clearly put the party on the back foot.

It was no coincidence that Ed Miliband was at pains to use his candidate's full formal title in virtually every answer when I interviewed him out on the campaign trail in Doncaster.

Canon Alan Billings, he said, had no connection with Rotherham and is a retired Anglican priest rather than a front-ranking local politician.

He acknowledged that tragic mistakes had been made by a range of organisations including councillors, social workers and police, but assured me that Alan Billings has wide experience serving on the Youth Justice Board, giving him the insight to put things right.

Promoting candidates in elections is part of the job description for any party leader but Mr Miliband's task this time is not helped by the fact he wants to abolish all 41 crime commissioners if he wins the keys to 10 Downing Street next year.

His logic for taking to the campaign trail this time around is that whoever is elected will be steering the policy objectives of South Yorkshire Police for the almost two years left of the commissioner's term of office so he wants a Labour hand on the tiller.

Flash in the pan?

There is also another compelling reason for cranking up the Labour campaign machine.

This probably going to be the last test at the ballot box before the General Election and the party needs to reassure itself that UKIP's recent electoral advances in Labour's traditional South Yorkshire heartland are a mere flash in the pan.

It has been quite a flash.

From nowhere UKIP has come second in the two parliamentary by-elections in South Yorkshire since 2010. The party now has a handful of seats in local council chambers but the biggest shock was in this year's European Parliament Elections.

Analysis of the results shows that more voted for UKIP in Rotherham and Doncaster, with Labour not that far ahead in Barnsley and Sheffield.

All this makes it difficult for the other two parties putting up candidates to persuade voters that this is anything but a two-horse race. The English Democrats, a small right wing party, is fielding David Allen who came a surprise, but distant, second in 2012.

The Conservatives are going through the motions with their candidate, South Yorkshire businessman Ian Walker. Their coalition partners the Liberal Democrats are not even bothering to run.

The field is conspicuously short of any independent candidates, but that is hardly surprising as, with a required deposit of £5,000, they need very deep pockets.

So will there be any broad hints about how things are going from the eventual result of Police and Crime Commissioner elections?

Well, it might not be as simple as that.

On the streets with campaigners handing out leaflets I have not detected much more enthusiasm for bothering to turn out than at the original 2012 elections. South Yorkshire saw just 14% of the electorate voting and in the country's only other by-election, in the West Midlands, it was even less than that.