Ed Miliband delivers his speech at the Labour conference in Manchester last month. Photograph: Getty Images.
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The by-elections show Labour can be confident of election victory

Our hard-fought victory in Heywood & Middleton stands in stark contrast to the Tories' collapse in Clacton. 

I agree with Grant Shapps: last week's by-elections put Ed Miliband one step closer to No 10. If you read some of the media coverage of the by-elections, you might have been forgiven for thinking that Labour had been beaten in Heywood & Middleton and that the Tories had won in Clacton.

Let's be clear: David Cameron didn't just lose in Clacton - he suffered a humiliating defeat. The Tories fell apart quicker than a Ukip policy announcement. And it wasn't for lack of trying. At least 10 members of the Cabinet went campaigning in Clacton. Just a week after David Cameron confidently predicted "we are taking this election very seriously - we can win this", he got his backside kicked. He lost with the Tories’ biggest drop in share of the vote in any by-election in two decades.

Just as importantly, he lost after he'd played his biggest anti-Ukip cards: his EU referendum pledge; the promise to scrap the Human Rights Act; the unfunded tax cuts (from a man who once said "you can’t talk about tax reduction unless you can show how it is paid for, the public aren’t stupid"); the squeeze on working age benefits for three million working people, whilst keeping his donors happy with his tax cut for millionaires.

For about 48 hours, the ludicrously fawning Tory-supporting media were talking excitedly about Cameron's post-conference polling surge. They've stopped now. The Tories losing Clacton would be like Labour losing a seat like Islwyn, North Durham or Leigh.

Clacton was a political earthquake. The Tory defeat to Ukip in Clacton follows defeats to Labour in the local elections in May in the battleground seats that will decide the general election next year: a list that includes places like Amber Valley, Croydon, Carlisle, Weaver Vale, Lincoln and Ipswich. Also on that list is Crawley, where on Thursday, in an important council by-election which was perhaps overshadowed by events elsewhere, Labour won back a seat from a Conservative councillor who had defected to Ukip.

And contrary to the media myth of equivalent pain for the main parties at the hands of Ukip last Thursday, Labour's result in Heywood & Middleton is actually in contrast with the Tories' result in Clacton. In both seats there was a strong Ukip challenge. But in Clacton, the Tory vote collapsed. In Heywood & Middleton, the Labour vote held firm – in fact, it increased slightly. Ukip increased its vote, but largely at the expense of the Tories and Lib Dems, who went from 50 per cent of the vote between them in 2010 to just 17 per cent between them now.

Our victory has followed a concerted effort by Labour to take Ukip and expose them for what they are: more Tory than the Tories. Like their plans to privatise the NHS, abolish workers' rights, increase bankers' bonuses, cut taxes for millionaires. Their top people are overwhelmingly ex-Tory, from their ex-Tory leader, deputy leader and treasurer; to their two ex-Tory MP defectors; to their Heywood & Middleton candidate who admitted during the campaign that he'd personally voted Tory for many years. And their money comes from ex-Tory donors – in the last quarter almost 90 per cent of their funding came from people who used to bankroll the Conservative Party.

We took this message to the people of Heywood & Middleton, with hard-hitting campaign materials showing the Ukip threat, as well as keeping our focus on saving the NHS and standing up for working people.  The result was closer than we would have liked, but the fact is the Labour vote held firm. In football terms, Heywood and Middleton wasn't pretty but we did take all three points. And teams that win the league sometimes have to scrap for a win.

We know that when it comes to taking Ukip on in Labour areas, we have continued work to do. We have the right arguments and many of the right campaigning materials. But we now need to have the confidence to go out there and take the fight to Ukip wherever they pose a threat.

But the Tory collapse at Ukip's expense tells you something else: David Cameron's party is falling back in the areas where they need to hold firm and then make progress. Before the last election, David Cameron said: "If we can't win in the north west, we can't carry the country". He didn't win in the north west. He fell back badly. Every Tory MP in a marginal constituency in the north west – and there are plenty – will have looked at the result in Heywood & Middleton and shuddered.

So don't believe everything you read from the Conservative-supporting commentariat (or some of the doom-and-gloomers on our own side). Ed Miliband is the eternal warrior against complacency, but we equally we should have confidence. For once, let's all agree with Grant Shapps when he said that the by-election results "put Ed Miliband one step nearer to No 10". For the sake of the country, let's keep working together to make sure he's right.

Michael Dugher is Labour MP for Barnsley East and the former Shadow Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport.

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After Richmond Park, Labour MPs are haunted by a familiar ghost

Labour MPs in big cities fear the Liberal Democrats, while in the north, they fear Ukip. 

The Liberal Democrats’ victory in Richmond Park has Conservatives nervous, and rightly so. Not only did Sarah Olney take the votes of soft Conservatives who backed a Remain vote on 23 June, she also benefited from tactical voting from Labour voters.

Although Richmond Park is the fifth most pro-Remain constituency won by a Conservative at the 2015 election, the more significant number – for the Liberal Democrats at least – is 15: that’s the number of Tory-held seats they could win if they reduced the Labour vote by the same amount they managed in Richmond Park.

The Tories have two Brexit headaches, electorally speaking. The first is the direct loss of voters who backed David Cameron in 2015 and a Remain vote in 2016 to the Liberal Democrats. The second is that Brexit appears to have made Liberal Democrat candidates palatable to Labour voters who backed the party as the anti-Conservative option in seats where Labour is generally weak from 1992 to 2010, but stayed at home or voted Labour in 2015.

Although local council by-elections are not as dramatic as parliamentary ones, they offer clues as to how national elections may play out, and it’s worth noting that Richmond Park wasn’t the only place where the Liberal Democrats saw a dramatic surge in the party’s fortunes. They also made a dramatic gain in Chichester, which voted to leave.

(That’s the other factor to remember in the “Leave/Remain” divide. In Liberal-Conservative battlegrounds where the majority of voters opted to leave, the third-placed Labour and Green vote tends to be heavily pro-Remain.)

But it’s not just Conservatives with the Liberal Democrats in second who have cause to be nervous.  Labour MPs outside of England's big cities have long been nervous that Ukip will do to them what the SNP did to their Scottish colleagues in 2015. That Ukip is now in second place in many seats that Labour once considered safe only adds to the sense of unease.

In a lot of seats, the closeness of Ukip is overstated. As one MP, who has the Conservatives in second place observed, “All that’s happened is you used to have five or six no-hopers, and all of that vote has gone to Ukip, so colleagues are nervous”. That’s true, to an extent. But it’s worth noting that the same thing could be said for the Liberal Democrats in Conservative seats in 1992. All they had done was to coagulate most of the “anyone but the Conservative” vote under their banner. In 1997, they took Conservative votes – and with it, picked up 28 formerly Tory seats.

Also nervous are the party’s London MPs, albeit for different reasons. They fear that Remain voters will desert them for the Liberal Democrats. (It’s worth noting that Catherine West, who sits for the most pro-Remain seat in the country, has already told constituents that she will vote against Article 50, as has David Lammy, another North London MP.)

A particular cause for alarm is that most of the party’s high command – Jeremy Corbyn, Emily Thornberry, Diane Abbott, and Keir Starmer – all sit for seats that were heavily pro-Remain. Thornberry, in particular, has the particularly dangerous combination of a seat that voted Remain in June but has flirted with the Liberal Democrats in the past, with the shadow foreign secretary finishing just 484 votes ahead of Bridget Fox, the Liberal Democrat candidate, in 2005.

Are they right to be worried? That the referendum allowed the Liberal Democrats to reconfigure the politics of Richmond Park adds credence to a YouGov poll that showed a pro-Brexit Labour party finishing third behind a pro-second referendum Liberal Democrat party, should Labour go into the next election backing Brexit and the Liberal Democrats opt to oppose it.

The difficulty for Labour is the calculation for the Liberal Democrats is easy. They are an unabashedly pro-European party, from their activists to their MPs, and the 22 per cent of voters who back a referendum re-run are a significantly larger group than the eight per cent of the vote that Nick Clegg’s Liberal Democrats got in 2015.

The calculus is more fraught for Labour. In terms of the straight Conservative battle, their best hope is to put the referendum question to bed and focus on issues which don’t divide their coalition in two, as immigration does. But for separate reasons, neither Ukip nor the Liberal Democrats will be keen to let them.

At every point, the referendum question poses difficulties for Labour. Even when neither Ukip nor the Liberal Democrats take seats from them directly, they can hurt them badly, allowing the Conservatives to come through the middle.

The big problem is that the stance that makes sense in terms of maintaining party unity is to try to run on a ticket of moving past the referendum and focussing on the party’s core issues of social justice, better public services and redistribution.

But the trouble with that approach is that it’s alarmingly similar to the one favoured by Kezia Dugdale and Scottish Labour in 2016, who tried to make the election about public services, not the constitution. They came third, behind a Conservative party that ran on an explicitly pro-Union platform. The possibility of an English sequel should not be ruled out.  

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to British politics.