So Ukip now have their first elected MP. Douglas Carswell won Clacton as emphatically as expected. The forgotten Bob Spink is no longer the only Ukip MP in history.
That much we envisaged long before the night began. What we did not were the events in Heywood and Middleton, where Labour only held off Ukip by 617 votes. Although its vote share rose by 0.8 per cent, Labour’s majority of 6,000 in 2010 fell by 90 per cent to 617. “We are ripping lumps out of the old Labour vote in north England,” Nigel Farage said. Expect plenty more of such bluster.
Ukip are not about to overturn dozens of Labour’s northern heartlands. But the result in Heywood is further evidence of the threat that Ukip poses Labour. It is one rooted in much more than the charisma of Mr Farage, but the disconnect between Labour (and all main parties) and the working-class. In 1979, there were 98 manual workers and 21 people who worked primarily in politics in Parliament. In 2010, 25 manual workers were elected to Westminster – and 90 people who had worked primarily in politics before becoming an MP. Average turnout was just 58 per cent in Labour’s 100 safest seats in 2010.
This deep-seated discontent underpins Ukip’s “2020 strategy”: the belief that a series of strong second-placed finishes next May, especially with local candidates who will contest the seats again five years later, will set the party up for a renewed assault at the next election.
And there are some northern seats that Ukip could even win next May. It is a threat that some in the Labour Party are increasingly recognising. A report by the Fabian Society last week argued that, while it remains a psephological fact that Ukip take around three Conservative votes for every one Labour vote, more than ten Labour seats could be at risk from Ukip (including Great Grimsby, which I visited last month). Labour could also miss out on gains from the Conservatives in seats where Ukip takes more votes from Labour than the Tories.
A number of MPs have admitted that Labour was guilty of complacency against Ukip in the past. After the European elections it became impossible for Labour to ignore its Ukip problem. And that is what makes the result in Heywood so worrying. Labour thought that it had honed its line of attack against Ukip – “More Tory than the Tories”. Evidently, it did not work.
Heywood also provided further proof of the strength of Ukip’s campaign machine. A poll from Lord Ashcroft last week gave Labour a 19 per cent lead in the constituency, which Ukip cut to two per cent tonight. We have seen this before: in Eastleigh last February, Ukip gained 31 per cent of its support in the last week, including 18 per cent on the day itself. Nigel Farage’s decision to talk down expectations in Heywood, and not campaign on the day of the vote, may have prevented John Bickley joining Douglas Carswell in Parliament.
That should be little consolation to Labour. John Mann, who has long been ahead of the party leadership in recognising the Ukip threat, warned immediately after the result: “If Ed Miliband does not broaden the Labour coalition to better include working class opinion then we cannot win a majority government.”
The underlying problem for Labour is that its poll numbers under Miliband have only held up because of the support of nearly a quarter of Liberal Democrat voters in 2010. Trying to reconcile appealing to voters now plumping for Ukip while retaining Labour’s appeal to disaffected former Lib Dems was not in the Miliband grand plan seven months before the general election.