Ukip leader Nigel Farage with a campaign poster during the Heywood and Middleton by-election. Photograph: Getty Images.
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Ukip's surge in Heywood should terrify Labour - but even now some remain complacent

It is remarkable that some in the party are drawing comfort from a rise of just 0.8 per cent in their vote. 

For years, many in Labour have regarded Ukip's spectacular rise with equanimity. The party takes most of its votes from Conservative supporters and makes it easier for us to win the general election, they cry. "My enemy's enemy is my friend" one can almost hear them thinking.    

Last night's Heywood and Middleton by-election, in which Ukip finished just 617 votes behind Labour, should shatter this complacency for good. Having polled only 2.6 per cent in 2010, the Farageists won a swing of 18 per cent and forced a dramatic recount (two polls had suggested a far more comfortable 19-point victory for Labour, but our elections site May 2015 smartly forecast just how close the race would be). 

That Ukip came within 2 per cent of winning the seat (only the 148th most Ukip-friendly) should terrify Labour. The Lib Dems' support collapsed to 5 per cent (from 23 per cent in 2010), owing to their involvement in the coalition; the Tories suffered from the austerity they have imposed (their vote fell from 27 per cent to 12 per cent), and yet the opposition was only able to increase its vote by 0.8 per cent. Faced with an unpopular two-party government, Labour should be thriving. Instead it has barely advanced from the days of Gordon Brown and the financial crisis. Had Ukip's resources not been divided between Heywood and the simultaneous by-election in Clacton (where Tory defector Douglas Carswell won a thumping majority of 12,404) they would almost certainly have claimed the seat.

For that, Ed Miliband should be gasping with relief. Had Labour suffered the indignity of losing a seat to Ukip, some of those MPs privately calling for his resignation would have gone public. Despite this brush with disaster, there are shadow cabinet ministers drawing comfort from the fact the party's vote crept up from its 2010 level. "Labour vote share up in Heywood & Middleton. We always knew it wld be close with UKIP making gains esp from ex Tory + Lib Dem voters," tweeted Gloria De Piero. She appears entirely unconcerned that those who wanted to oppose the government chose not to support the opposition. As Marcus Roberts, the deputy general secretary of the Fabian Society, and the author of the essential pamphlet Revolt on the Left: Labour’s Ukip problem and how it can be overcome​, laconically observed: "It is good we have grown our share of the vote on 2010. But I think we need to grow it by more than 1% to win next year."

If Ukip can run Labour this close when Miliband's party in opposition, just think how much damage it could inflict on it if it enters Downing Street. In the form of "the people's army", which has now finished second in five Labour-held seats in this parliament, the party faces a populist force freed of the toxic associations of the Tory brand. An unpopular Labour government, forced to impose the kind of cuts it has spent most of the last four years opposing, would struggle to stop the rebels toppling its fortresses.

By-elections are historically a poor indicator of general election performance, and Ukip will still likely fail to win a seat off Labour next May. But it is not just defeat that the party now needs to fear, but victory too. With Ukip insurgent, the SNP on the march on Scotland, the Greens rising on the left, and the potential for the Lib Dems to recover under Tim Farron, the danger for Miliband is that May 2015 could yet prove to be a win from which he never recovers. 

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

Ukip's Nigel Farage and Paul Nuttall. Photo: Getty
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Is the general election 2017 the end of Ukip?

Ukip led the way to Brexit, but now the party is on less than 10 per cent in the polls. 

Ukip could be finished. Ukip has only ever had two MPs, but it held an outside influence on politics: without it, we’d probably never have had the EU referendum. But Brexit has turned Ukip into a single-issue party without an issue. Ukip’s sole remaining MP, Douglas Carswell, left the party in March 2017, and told Sky News’ Adam Boulton that there was “no point” to the party anymore. 

Not everyone in Ukip has given up, though: Nigel Farage told Peston on Sunday that Ukip “will survive”, and current leader Paul Nuttall will be contesting a seat this year. But Ukip is standing in fewer constituencies than last time thanks to a shortage of both money and people. Who benefits if Ukip is finished? It’s likely to be the Tories. 

Is Ukip finished? 

What are Ukip's poll ratings?

Ukip’s poll ratings peaked in June 2016 at 16 per cent. Since the leave campaign’s success, that has steadily declined so that Ukip is going into the 2017 general election on 4 per cent, according to the latest polls. If the polls can be trusted, that’s a serious collapse.

Can Ukip get anymore MPs?

In the 2015 general election Ukip contested nearly every seat and got 13 per cent of the vote, making it the third biggest party (although is only returned one MP). Now Ukip is reportedly struggling to find candidates and could stand in as few as 100 seats. Ukip leader Paul Nuttall will stand in Boston and Skegness, but both ex-leader Nigel Farage and donor Arron Banks have ruled themselves out of running this time.

How many members does Ukip have?

Ukip’s membership declined from 45,994 at the 2015 general election to 39,000 in 2016. That’s a worrying sign for any political party, which relies on grassroots memberships to put in the campaigning legwork.

What does Ukip's decline mean for Labour and the Conservatives? 

The rise of Ukip took votes from both the Conservatives and Labour, with a nationalist message that appealed to disaffected voters from both right and left. But the decline of Ukip only seems to be helping the Conservatives. Stephen Bush has written about how in Wales voting Ukip seems to have been a gateway drug for traditional Labour voters who are now backing the mainstream right; so the voters Ukip took from the Conservatives are reverting to the Conservatives, and the ones they took from Labour are transferring to the Conservatives too.

Ukip might be finished as an electoral force, but its influence on the rest of British politics will be felt for many years yet. 

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