About last night…

Last night UKIP won their first seat at an election. Douglas Carswell is an MP once more, this time with a purple rosette, UKIP’s first MP since Bob Spink’s fleeting spell in 2008.

But we all knew that was coming. What few saw coming was the significance of the result in the ‘other’ by-election in Heywood and Middleton, where Labour was expected to comfortably retake the seat vacated following the sad death of long-serving MP Jim Dobbin, with UKIP a distant second. As it was, UKIP was just 618 votes from taking a second seat in one night.

UKIP claim that it was simply that Labour accelerated the by-election to last night, rather than waiting until after Jim Dobbin’s funeral, that cost them a historic second seat. A few more days, and it might have been an even more miserable night for Ed Miliband, for whom losing the seat could have led to a rebellion against his leadership. Today there has been no congratulation message to their new MP – it’s now about face-saving: Labour’s press team Tweeted this morning that “Labour share of vote in Heywood & Middleton slightly up on 2010. Tory/LD combined share collapsed from 50% in 2010 to 17% now.” Of course Labour won’t admit to how worried they are, but the response to this Tweet and those from loyal Labour MPs, has been that Labour should not be quite so complacent, or self-congratulatory.

Heywood and Middleton has, for the first time, shown empirically how dangerous UKIP could be to the ‘Westminster Bubble’. It will make the Conservatives more nervous than ever that they could lose the by-election in Rochester and Strood, which hadn’t been such a certain loss as Clacton. Privately Conservative Central HQ has always known UKIP was going to win Clacton, but now insiders not only fear that they might lose Rochester and Strood but that if they do they will be highly unlikely to get a majority next year. According to demographics, this is a seat the Conservatives should hold, and Mark Reckless is not Douglas Carswell – he does not have the dedicated local support that Carswell has built – but recent polls still put him ahead. Polls can be deceiving – Lord Ashcroft’s 2014 poll of Heywood and Middleton put UKIP 19 points behind Labour – and the result was so much closer. They weren’t just out, they were completely wrong: there are people out there voting UKIP who won’t admit it. Yet.

What does this mean for next year and the General Election? Well… last night showed that nowhere, possibly apart from London, is safe from UKIP. Seats that no one would point to as being susceptible to UKIP’s politics could come close to going purple. Labour will have expected UKIP to do well in Heywood and Middleton – but no one except for UKIP themselves really thought it would be that close. But yesterday’s results reaffirm that seats that have been ‘neglected’ by the main political parties – for Labour in the North and the Conservatives in the home counties – are under threat.

By-elections are famous for delivering strong performances by parties outside the traditional Westminster elite but, perhaps for the first time, people will be voting at a General Election for a party as a true protest to the status quo. Sure UKIP will get a high number of votes that probably won’t be reflected in the number of seats they gain through the first past the post system, but it’s where they won’t win but will split the vote that they will have an effect. UKIP could well decide the outcome of the 2015 General Election, more so than the Lib Dems. As for anything else: God only knows.

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