Both Labour and Tories have much to be embarrassed about this morning. David Cameron’s Conservatives won Clacton decisively four years ago – now his party has been not just defeated but crushed there by an upstart party. As for Ed Miliband, he’s supposed to be on the path to power. That is normally announced by a series of by-election wins with increased majorities. But Labour only held Heywood & Middleton by a whisker: had another 310 more Labour voters switched to Ukip then this supposedly safe Labour seat would have been lost to Nigel Farage. And Ed Miliband would have a lot of explaining to do this morning.
Last night’s two by-elections establish Ukip as a national force; not a protest party but (now) a parliamentary party which commands about 16 per cent of the vote thanks to its resonance with a large chunk of the British public from Manchester to the Essex coast. Ukip is not so much about Europe; it’s a working-class party, which is mopping up votes from all around Britain while party managers obsess over a handful of swing voters in marginal seats.
As a democrat, I’m pleased by Ukip’s incredible success – perhaps this will make both parties take neglected voters more seriously. But as a conservative, all this dismays me. I’ve written a piece for the Daily Telegraph this morning saying that the Tories had the remedies for voters in Clacton, but chose not to fight for the seat – and its people – due to a misguided idea that they can never win in Ukip territory. Such attitudes become self-fulfilling. Carswell’s by-election may have been unique, but the Tory failure to fight it – let alone win it – has with it lots of lessons that they’ll need to learn.