Senior Liberal Democrats today tried to put a brave face on their humiliating "kicking" in the Barnsley Central by-election, where their candidate lost his deposit and limped in sixth behind Ukip, the British National Party and an independent unemployed ex-miner.
Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg warned critics not to "write off" the Liberal Democrats and insisted he would not be blown off course by the setback.
But Labour leader Ed Miliband, paying a triumphant visit to the South Yorkshire town to congratulate new MP Dan Jarvis, said the result was a clear sign that voters were "fed up" with the coalition Government's cuts agenda.
Amid unease among grassroots Lib Dems at the impact coalition with the Conservatives is having on their electoral chances, former leader Paddy Ashdown urged the party to "stand firm".
The Lib Dems will have to wait for at least another two years to reap any dividend for their part in dealing with the economic crisis, Lord Ashdown told the BBC.
But he added: "We have got to have the discipline and toughness to stand there and do what needs to be done and take the flak for that while this country gets through the most difficult economic crisis it has faced for 40 or 50 years."
Labour cruised to a resounding victory in a seat vacated by the resignation of their former MP Eric Illsley, jailed last month for expenses fraud.
Mr Jarvis, a former army major, increased the party's majority from 11,093 to 11,771 (60.8%), on a turnout of just 36.5%.
The Lib Dems' vote share tumbled from 17.28% to just 4.18%, and their Conservative coalition partner's from 17.26% to 8.25%, as the UK Independence Party claimed second place.
The extent of the Lib Dems' slide surpassed all predictions, with particular embarrassment at being beaten by Independent Tony Devoy, who had no party machine behind him.
Lib Dem candidate Dominic Carman said: "The voters here in Barnsley have given me and the Liberal Democrats a kicking."
But he added: "We can take it."
In a brief appearance before the TV cameras today, Mr Clegg said Barnsley Central was one of Labour's safest seats and all the other parties had been left to "pick up the pieces".
But he admitted: "The result in the by-election last night was obviously a bad result for the Liberal Democrats.
"I have no doubt that people will try to use this single result to write off the Liberal Democrats. They have done it in the past and we have proved them wrong and we will prove them wrong again.
"In Government, we will continue to do what I think is absolutely vital for the long-term benefit of the country - namely sort out the economic mess we inherited from Labour for the long-term benefit of the country."
Mr Miliband described the by-election outcome as "a fantastic result - another step on the road to regaining the trust of the British people".
"Nick Clegg and David Cameron may have run away from the people of Barnsley but they cannot hide from the message of last night's by-election," he said.
"After less than 10 months of this Conservative-led Government, the people of Barnsley have made clear that they are fed up with what they are doing to our country: squeezing living standards, betraying the hopes of young people and destroying the institutions we value most, from local libraries to the NHS."
In a clear message to former Lib Dem voters, Mr Miliband said: "Labour is the only progressive alternative to this Conservative-led Government and I urge people to join us or work with us to change the direction of this country."
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