The caricature of Ukip, as the party of disgruntled country club types in the shires, has stubbornly lingered even as the facts have told a very different story. This morning, that myth was finally scotched.
Ukip’s soufflé has not deflated. But it is Labour in the north – and not the Conservatives in the south – who have suffered. Remarkably given the resources the party poured into the seat and his profile, it looks like Nigel Farage has been defeated in Thanet South. But even more remarkably, given the comparative lack of attention they paid to the constituency, Ukip forced a recount against Labour in Hartlepool; we already know that they got second places in Sunderland’s two seats.
It is proof of how much Ukip is benefitting from Labour’s alienation of its core vote. It isn’t just an Ed Miliband problem, either: between 1997 and 2001, Labour lost three million votes; its majority remained unharmed only because these disaffected voters had nowhere else to go and stayed at home. In 2010, the average turnout in the 100 safest Labour seats was 58%, compared with 68% in the 100 safest Tory ones.
Suddenly talk of Ukip emerging as the opposition to Labour in the north doesn’t just look like bluster. The party is on course to gain close to 100 second places in the north, an ideal platform from which to launch further assaults on a faction-ridden Labour in five years time: the 2020 strategy.
But who be lead Ukip into the next election? Farage has repeatedly said that he will quit if he fails to win in Thanet South, as is extremely likely. He has also said that he would like a woman – which most people have taken to mean Suzanne Evans, who wrote Ukip’s manifesto.
Yet the abrasive Liverpodlian Paul Nuttall is the Ukipper who might feel most vindicated tonight. Nuttall, deputy leader to Farage, was the leading architect of Ukip’s strategy to take on Labour in its northern heartlands; his embrace of pavement politics in the Oldham East and Saddleworth evolved into the model for Ukip in by-elections and then this general election.“I always thought that if you want to get into Westminster, which has obviously got to be the end game, you’re only going to do that through pavement politics and getting people elected onto local councils,” he told me.
Comprehensive-educated and from a working-class family of Labour supporters in Bootle, a dockyard town next to Liverpool, in many ways Nuttall is the antithesis of Farage. His election as leader would symbolise a party committed to overturning Labour in the north. He wants the job, too, telling me that he “wouldn’t be anyone else’s deputy” earlier this year.
But whether Nuttall would be able to maintain Ukip’s fragile coalition is a different matter. He supports reintroducing the death penalty for child murderers, serial killers and those who murder police officers and, as a devout Catholic, advocates limiting abortion to the first 12 weeks of a pregnancy. Serving under him might be rather difficult for Douglas Carswell to reconcile with his classical liberalism – perhaps why Carswell is not ruling out making a bid for leader.
Balancing the competing forces in Ukip – not just blue and red, but libertarian and authoritarian – will test the skills of the party’s next leader to the hilt. But re-engaging those who feel abandoned by Labour over the last two decades and stop them plumping for purple will be an even more daunting challenge for Ed Miliband’s successor.