Despite Labour retaining their Heywood and Middleton seat last night, it was Ukip who came away from the by-election stronger after a closely-fought race.
In what has been a safe Labour constituency for decades, the far-right party enjoyed their best-ever by-election result missing out by 2% of the vote.
Led by the charismatic Paul Nuttall, Deputy Leader and MEP, Ukip party workers prowled around the count, clearly overjoyed at having made deep tracks in Labour’s traditional heartland.
There is a genuine belief within the party that they can claim parliamentary seats in May’s General Election in the North of England.
They can smell Labour’s blood in the water and will go all guns blazing to take the seat next year, along with others.
Nuttall said to MM: “Labour must be absolutely terrified.
“If I was Labour, I’d be very, very worried indeed and Ed Miliband has planned to come up here tomorrow. Frankly, I just don’t know how the man could show his face.
“The fact is we’ve gone from 2.5% of the vote in 2010 to 38%. There’s only one winner here and that’s Ukip. This is a mega result for us.”
Normally, results such as these can be put down to low turnout figures – here a paltry 36% turned up to cast their ballot – and protest voting.
But this might be different. Rather than running out of steam, it’s perfectly plausible that Conservative voters could team up with Ukip for a lesser-of-two-evils outcome.
Nuttall said: “If the 3,500 people who voted Conservative in this election came out and voted Ukip, you’d have a Ukip MP now and not a Labour MP.
“The message coming out of this by-election surely is that in the North of England if you vote Conservative, you will get Labour.”
When it became clear there would be less than 1,000 votes in it, which prompted a recount, the Ukip delegates became increasingly boisterous.
The result was now immaterial – the party had proved its point.
Labour’s Liz McInnes was heckled throughout her victory speech and every mention of Ed Miliband was greeted with jeers and laughter from the Ukip huddle, whose raucousness resembled that of a rugby team on a night out.
Ukip’s MEP for Scotland David Coburn acted as the group’s ringleader and, when separated from the rest of the gaggle, he was no less forthright.
“Just you watch – we’re going to wipe out Labour across the North and replace them with Ukip,” he said.
But despite their obvious momentum, the path to electoral success in the North is by no means clear.
The far-right party still struggles to connect with younger voters, and women, and their plans to ‘streamline’ the NHS doesn’t sit right with huge swathes of prospective supporters.
When questioned on the subject, Nuttall struggles to outline exactly how his party would increase efficiency without largely privatising the service.
You get the impression the hierarchy of the party itself is divided on the issue.
And while Ukip ran Labour close in Heywood and Middleton, Labour’s share of the vote was actually higher than it was in the last General Election.
Ukip managed to garner 38.7% by eating into the Conservative’s support base, leaving them vulnerable should the Tories make a comeback in the North.
Labour’s Chesterfield MP Toby Perkins told MM: “The Conservative and UKIP vote is very closely aligned. When one goes up, the other will start to go down.
“Across the North I don’t anticipate the Conservatives doing this badly again.”
Nonetheless, there is something compelling about Ukip’s rag-tag, largely grassroots movement.
They’re all about energising the electorate and getting people engaged in politics.
At the Heywood and Middleton count, long after all the other parties had left, Ukip’s activists were huddled around a TV set, waiting with baited breath for the declaration of their comrade Douglas Carswell’s barnstorming victory in Clacton.
The loudest roar of the night was reserved for the moment when Carswell was confirmed as the party’s first-ever MP.
With such a vocal and passionate support base, it wouldn’t be wise to bet against them picking up at least a few more in May.