Labour was squeezed in its north west heartland on Friday morning when Ukip came within 617 votes of capturing the safe seat of Heywood and Middleton.
Nigel Farage declared that he was leading the only true national party after it became clear that Ukip had performed beyond expectations in the seat which mainly lies in Greater Manchester.
Liz McInnes won for Labour with 11,633 votes which was well down on the 18,499 votes (40.1%) the late Jim Dobbin won at the 2010 general election. But John Bickley came second on 11,016 votes, a dramatic improvement on the 1,215 (2.6%) won by Ukip when it came fifth in 2010.
As he arrived at the count on the other side of England in Clacton, Farage said that his party’s strong showing in Heywood and Middleton showed that he now leads the only true national party.
The Ukip leader said: “We are the most national of all political parties. We are the only party that can get big vote shares in Tory heartlands and in Labour heartlands.
“No other party crosses those boundaries – those old divides of left and right and the divides of class – and we cross all of those things.”
Farage said that the Westminster class would not be able to recover. “You’re out of touch, guys,” he said, when asked what message his party’s success sends to Westminster.
“It is too late,” he said when asked what they should do. “We have a career political class of college kids who have never had jobs in their lives with absolutely no connection to ordinary people and how they are struggling. We need new people. We need change, real change.”
The closer than expected result will put immense pressure on Ed Miliband who has faced criticism after he forgot to mention the deficit in his Labour conference speech.
John Mann, the Labour MP for Bassetlaw, said that Labour cannot win a majority government unless Miliband broadens the party’s coalition to include working class opinion.
McInnes was loudly heckled by Ukip supporters as she attempted to deliver her victory speech. She began by declaring that “people have given their backing to Ed Miliband’s plans,” which was greeted with gales of laughter from the Ukip contingent.
As she pledged to fight for the NHS, they repeatedly shouted PFI – a reference to the Private Finance Initiative, one of Labour’s pet schemes by which public infrastructure projects, particularly hospitals, were funded with private capital at very high future costs.
She held her nerve to finish her speech, in which she said: “People here weren’t convinced by Ukip – the party of Tory ideas, Tory people, Tory money and Tory values.”
McInnes said: “I am proud to have been selected as the new MP for Heywood and Middleton. Our vote held up, we had not anticipated the Tory vote collapsing quite so dramatically. But our core voters turned out. We didn’t take anyone’s votes for granted and we have run a very strong positive campaign.”
Asked if she expected Ukip to run have Labour so close, she said: “To be honest with you I have been through more or less every scenario. As I said before, we don’t take anyone’s vote for granted. We work very hard and I am just pleased our vote held up. We can’t choose our opponents.
“I am proud and honoured to have been selected for this area. I am not disappointed that the majority has been reduced. I knew this was going to be a tough fight and we have run a really strong positive campaign and we have fought for every single vote.”
John Bickley, Ukip’s candidate, who also came second in the Wythenshawe and Sale byelection earlier this year, said: “I’m under no illusions. Another two or three days and we would have won this.”
When asked if he would contest the seat again next May, he said: “I don’t see why not.”
Early in the campaign in Heywood and Middleton, Labour councillors and MPs put out SOS calls to activists, saying Ukip posed a “real threat”.
Simon Danczuk, the outspoken Labour MP for neighbouring Rochdale, warned: “We must fight Heywood and Middleton like we’ve never fought a byelection before. We need to throw the kitchen sink at it.”
There was unhappiness among the local party rank and file after Labour’s central command failed to shortlist any local candidates to fight the byelection.
Ukip sensed a chance at victory among the disaffected Labour voters in the seat, which in various guises has been Labour for the past 50 years, ever since housing estates were built to relocate thousands of poor residents from central Manchester back in the early 1960s.
Nigel Farage, Ukip’s leader, made three trips to the constituency during the four-week campaign, downing pints in local pubs, climbing aboard a tank and making disparaging remarks about Miliband, who visited the seat twice.
During the campaign, polling expert Ian Warren (@election_data) warned Labour that two particular demographic groups were likely to desert them: older voters in social housing and vulnerable young parents requiring substantial state support.
Although Ukip polled just 2.6% in the 2010 general election, which Dobbin won with a 5,971 majority, the party performed well in this May’s local elections. It did not actually win any seats, though it lost by just 23 votes in the West Heywood ward, which is dominated by the Darnhill housing estate.
Despite Labour’s domination, Ukip managed to win 23% of all the votes cast across the constituency and was second only to Labour’s lacklustre 37%. The Conservatives took 20%, the Lib Dems (despite holding their North Heywood seat) only 9%.
Labour decided to fight the byelection almost exclusively on the NHS, warning voters that Ukip wanted to privatise healthcare.
They circulated a letter written by Farage’s deputy, Paul Nuttall MEP, and posted on his website a few years ago praising the coalition for bringing a “whiff of privatisation to the NHS”.
In that letter, Nuttall writes: “I would argue that the very existence of the NHS stifles competition, and as competition drives quality and choice, innovation and improvements are restricted.”
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