Nigel Farage has delivered a mini-earthquake in British politics with the former Conservative MP Douglas Carswell capturing Ukip’s first parliamentary seat and the party squeezing Labour in its north-west heartland.
The Ukip leader declared early on Friday morning that he now leads the only truly national party after Carswell swept to victory in Clacton following a collapse in the Tory vote. Carswell won with 21,113 votes (59.66%) ahead of the Tory candidate Giles Watling on 8,709 votes, as the Conservative vote fell from the 53% that Carswell won as a Conservative in 2010 to 24.6%. The turnout was 51.2%.
The Liberal Democrats lost their deposit for the tenth time in a byelection this parliament after Andy Graham came fifth in Clacton behind the Greens with 483 votes, securing just 1.1% of the overall share compared with the 12.9% his party won in 2010. Labour came third on 3,957 votes.
Farage said his party could now reach into both Labour and Tory heartlands after Ukip squeezed Labour to come within 617 votes of capturing the formerly safe seat of Heywood and Middleton in Greater Manchester.
Liz McInnes, an NHS scientist and local councillor from Rossendale in Lancashire, won the Heywood and Middleton byelection for Labour with 11,633 votes. That was well down on the 18,499 votes the late Jim Dobbin won at the 2010 general election although the overall percentage of the Labour vote increased slightly from 40.1% to 40.9%.
The Ukip candidate John Bickley achieved one of his party’s most successful byelection results when he came second on 11,016 votes, a dramatic improvement on the 1,215 won by Ukip when it came fifth in 2010. Bickley saw the Ukip percentage shoot up from 2.6% in 2010 to 38.7%. The turnout was 36.02%.
As he arrived at the count on the other side of England in Clacton, Farage 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 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 the other parties 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.”
Ed Miliband faced immediate pressure after the result in Heywood and Middleton. John Mann, the Labour MP for Bassetlaw, tweeted: “If Ed Miliband does not broaden the Labour coalition to better include working class opinion then we cannot win a majority government.”
Ukip’s victory in Clacton, which follows Carswell’s defection in August, marks a major breakthrough for Ukip after its victory in the European parliamentary elections in May. Carswell’s victory will make it difficult to exclude Ukip from the leaders’ television debates in next year’s general election.
Carswell used his victory speech to issue a warning to Ukip that it must have no truck with racism as he said it must reach to all parts of Britain. He said: “We are a party for all Britain and all Britons, first and second generation as much as every other. Our strength must lie in our breadth.”
The new Ukip MP said that his party’s strong performance in Heywood and Middleton showed it was no longer the “Tory party in exile”. Carswell told Sky News: “The extraordinary result this evening is not here in Clacton. It is what happened in Middleton and Heywood – in a rock solid safe Labour seat we came within a hair’s breadth of winning. That says that we can win if we are good in Rochester. But it says we can take votes from the centre left as well as from the centre right.
“The idea that we are the Tory party in exile – that myth died this evening. We are a different party that stands for all Britain and all Britons, disillusioned former Labour voters who have given up on politics altogether, every bit as much as for traditional Conservative voters. This is something new, this is something different.”
The Conservatives had said that Farage would struggle to maintain the momentum after Ukip beat Labour into second place in the European elections in May. But Farage’s success in persuading two Tory MPs to defect to Ukip, both of whom immediately triggered byelections, has created the circumstances for dramatic contests to rival the byelections contested by the SDP in the early 1980s.
A writ has yet to be called for a byelection in Rochester and Strood after Mark Reckless followed Carswell’s lead to create the nearest parallel to the attempt by the SDP/Liberal Alliance to try and “break the mould” in British politics in the early 1980s.
Eric Pickles, the communities secretary, signalled early on in the night that the Tories were expecting to lose Clacton, which Carswell won for the Tories in 2010 with a majority of 12,068 votes. Pickles told Question Time on BBC1: “I live in optimistic hope that a Conservative will be returned tonight but I fear I will be disappointed.”
The communities secretary aired one of the main lines of attack the Tories will deploy in the general election when he said that only his party could guarantee an in/out referendum on Britain’s EU membership. He told Question Time: “The honest truth is this: the only way in which the British people will get a choice about whether or not to stay in the EU is if they vote Conservative at the next election because we are the only party that is capable of delivering that. We have made that pledge very clear.
“Come May the people of Clacton, as the rest of the country, will have a choice of whether they want to see Mr Miliband put through the door of No 10 or David Cameron walk through the door of No 10. Ukip is in the way of doing that.”
Harriet Harman, the deputy leader of the Labour party, moved to reach out to people attracted to Ukip. She said: “I profoundly understand the concerns people have that make them feel despairing or angry but I profoundly disagree with the proposals that Ukip are putting forward.
“People see them [Ukip] as outsiders and therefore giving people a kick up the backside. But the reality is that the policies that are being put forward would make the problems that people have and the struggles they have in their lives actually worse rather than better.
“As Ukip advances … people will look at those policies more seriously.”
Carswell’s victory will revive memories for some of the byelections of the early 1980s when Shirley Williams and Roy Jenkins, two of the founding members of the SDP Gang of Four, won high profile byelections.
This article was written by Nicholas Watt and Helen Pidd, for theguardian.com on Friday 10th October 2014 04.14 Europe/Londonguardian.co.uk © Guardian News and Media Limited 2010