In Depth

Ukip celebrate, but Labour’s near-disaster is the shocker

More talk of Miliband’s weaknesses after Labour’s ‘shameful’ performance in a once rock-solid seat

The history books will record Clacton as the place where Ukip got its first MP elected – and by a resounding margin. But it is the party’s near-victory yesterday in the Labour heartland seat of Heywood and Middleton that is the real shocker. It has led to renewed jitters about Ed Miliband's leadership.

The Great Manchester constituency was a rock-solid Labour seat. But their candidate, Liz McInnes, saw Labour's majority slashed from just under 6,000 to 617 by Ukip on a reduced turnout of only 35 per cent.

If that’s the best Labour can do in terms of getting out its vote in a high-profile election, the party faces huge problems. The result has led to immediate calls from within Labour for Miliband to ditch his "35 per cent strategy" – the plan to pinch a close-run general election victory by appealing to Labour's core vote.

Labour MP John Mann tweeted: “If Ed Miliband does not broaden the Labour coalition to better include working-class opinion then we cannot win a majority government. The real issue is why so many Labour voters are not bothering to vote. The mantra of ‘must work harder’ is not sufficient.”

Mann concluded: “Ed Miliband does a lot of listening. Now he needs to do a lot more hearing.” 

Just as Mann feared, his advice fell on deaf ears. Douglas Alexander, Miliband's election strategist, asked on Radio 4’s Today programme what Labour would do about the abysmal showing in Heywood and Middleton, answered: “The response is to work harder, to listen more to re-earn trust...”

Manchester Evening News reporter Jennifer Williams tweeted that she had been told by a Labour source: “That result is just utterly shameful for Labour. If the HQ doesn't wake up and smell the coffee we are truly bugg****.”

A jubilant Ukip leader, Nigel Farage said: “We are ripping lumps out of the old Labour vote in the north of England... the reason we haven't won [in Heywood and Middleton] is that too many people have stuck with the Conservatives, not realising that Ukip is now the challenger to Labour in every urban seat in the north of England.”

This wasn’t the only Farage quote doing the rounds this morning. In a timely reminder of what runs through the Farage brain, Newsweek published an interview with the Ukip leader in which he called for anyone who has tested positive for HIV to be banned from immigrating to Britain. It would, he said, be a “good start” to controlling our borders.

As The Guardian reports, the Terrence Higgins Trust said “the Ukip leader should feel ‘truly ashamed’ of himself after showing ‘an outrageous lack of understanding’ over such a sensitive issue.”

But Ukip’s sensational victory in Clacton and near-success in Manchester show that the party is getting a lot bigger than Farage.

Voters who cannot take his beer-swilling pub philosophy could now be encouraged to support Ukip because of Tory defector Douglas Carswell, who used his acceptance speech in Clacton to call on his new party to represent "all Britons", including second and third generation immigrants. He is already being tipped as the man to replace Farage if or when the day comes.

The size of the swing to Ukip in these two by-elections is undoubtedly worrying for David Cameron. 

The next test will be the November by-election in the Kent constituency of Rochester and Strood, caused by the defection of a second Tory MP to Ukip, Mark Reckless. Cameron's aides admit that if the Tories lose the seat – which looks a lot more likely this morning – it will be cause for panic.

Then there’s the question of how many more Ukip-minded Tory backbenchers might be tempted to jump ship in the coming weeks to save their jobs.

Farage said overnight that any Tories keen to join his bandwagon should simply cross the floor rather than stand down and trigger a by-election like Carswell and Reckless, given how close we are getting to the general election proper.

Grant Shapps, the Tory party chairman, was reduced to repeating the well-worn line that the risk of voting Ukip is that "you go to bed with Nigel Farage and wake up with Ed Miliband”.

Back to Labour. Election strategist Douglas Alexander tried to grab a crumb of comfort from the Heywood and Middleton result – namely, that a miniscule increase in the Labour share of the vote since the 2010 general election (up just 0.75 per cent) shows Labour's core vote is holding up for Ed Miliband. That brought guffaws at the Heywood count when it was repeated by Labour’s Liz McInnes.

Labour are claiming that if their share of the vote holds up elsewhere, while the Tories and Lib Dem hemorrhage support to Ukip, Labour could win 14 marginal seats in the Northwest - enough to allow Ed Miliband to grab the keys to Number Ten next May.

Paul Waugh, editor of PoliticsHome, tweeted that this argument is "real Labour spin". It ignores the fact that the turnout in Heywood suggests Labour is failing to get out its core vote and that Ed Miliband’s horribly low personal ratings are evidently an issue.

Mike Smithson of Political Betting believes it is probably too late for Labour to change leaders, though he wonders whether shadow health secretary Andy Burnham might make a late challenge. 

As one Tory backbencher told The Mole this morning, Labour are “not ruthless enough” to ditch Miliband. That is why Labour politicians such as John Mann and Lord Prescott are worrying aloud about his leadership qualities – and why we should expect the mutterings to increase over the weekend.

Clacton result in full: 

Douglas Carswell (Ukip) 21,113 (59.75%) 

Giles Watling (Con) 8,709 (24.64%, -28.38%) 

Tim Young (Lab) 3,957 (11.20%, -13.84%) 

Chris Southall (Green) 688 (1.95%, +0.71%) 

Andy Graham (Lib Dem) 483 (1.37%, -11.57%) 

Bruce Sizer (Ind) 205 (0.58%)

Howling Laud Hope (Loony) 127 (0.36%)

Charlotte Rose (Ind) 56 (0.16%)

Ukip maj 12,404 (35.10%)

Turnout 51.13% (-13.05%) 

Heywood and Middleton:

Liz McInnes (Lab) 11,633 (40.86%, +0.75%) 

John Bickley (Ukip) 11,016 (38.69%, +36.06%) 

Iain Gartside (Con) 3,496 (12.28%, -14.88%) 

Anthony Smith (Lib Dem) 1,457 (5.12%, -17.59%) 

Abi Jackson (Green) 870 (3.06%)

Lab maj 617 (2.17%) 

Turnout 35.96% (-21.57%)

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