For all the predictions of a disruption to politics as we know it, what happened in Wythenshawe and Sale East this week was not Orpington in 1962. Then, a groundswell of anti-establishment feeling propelled the outsider Liberal candidate to Parliament thanks to a swing of nearly 22 per cent. In Greater Manchester on Thursday, the UK Independence Party garnered a not insignificant 18 per cent, pushing the Tories into a humiliating third place and contributing to the collapse of the Liberal Democrats. Yet Labour not only held on to the seat by a wide margin, but it even increased its majority (albeit on a sharply lower turnout).
In fairness, Ukip’s performance was no mean feat. To more than quintuple its share of the vote, after just three weeks of campaigning, is some achievement; even more so given the speed with which postal ballots closed. Now, with no fewer than six by-election second-places since 2010, its position as a political fixture is irrefutable.
Nevertheless, Nigel Farage et al did not come anywhere near a victory. In the North, it seems, the party of protest is Her Majesty’s Opposition – hardly a sign of the collapse of the old order. There are even whispers that Ukip may not be the shoo-in to top the table in the forthcoming EU elections as many have assumed.
Even without a game-changing final outcome, however, there are still lessons to be learnt from Wythenshawe. The wipeout of the Liberal Democrats – whose support plummeted by 17 points, losing them their deposit – indicates just how high a price the former protest party is paying for its participation in government, particularly a Tory-led government making deep cuts in public spending. Equally, the Tories’ 11-point drop will focus minds in Conservative Central Office even more sharply on the scale of the challenge the party faces in the North.
Indeed, it is thus that Ukip stands to make its presence felt. Mr Farage’s hope that his party might be a threat to both right and left in their respective heartlands shows scant sign of coming to fruition. But what the Wythenshawe result does make clear is its potential to erode the Tory vote, both in the North and in all-important marginals. Ukip will not shake up politics by winning much itself, but it still very well might tip the scales towards Labour.