The Eastleigh by-election was a technical victory for the LibDems, but it was moral victory for UKIP, and an unmitigated disaster for the Conservatives.
David Davis, the former Conservative leadership contender, said before the by-election that coming third would suggest a crisis for his party. But he probably never thought that it would actually happen. But why did it happen?
UKIP's support came mostly from disaffected Conservatives and LibDems, as well as first-time voters and the usually apathetic. UKIPs vote surged in an inverse amount to that which the Conservatives and LibDems collapsed. Any boost that Labour might have expected to have gained as being the official opposition to the Coalition, failed to materialise: instead, it went to UKIP.
More interestingly, the postal vote went mostly to the LibDems, before the campaign (and the sex scandal) started. UKIP claim, with some justification, that they probably won the election on votes cast on the day. It was less that that the LibDems won, but that UKIP lost by less that 1800 votes. UKIP had turned Eastleigh into a three-way marginal.
Conservatives officially (as well as some analysts) have dismissed Eastleigh as a "protest vote". In other words, that many of those UKIP voters would "return to the fold" come a general election. Some Conservative research by Michael Ashcroft with UKIP voters in Eastleigh seems to have confirmed this thought. But that makes some dangerous assumptions.
Eastleigh, in some ways, was not a "typical" by-election. The LibDems control the local council in its entirety, giving them a huge natural advantage on the ground. Technically, although Conservative chairman Grant Shapps claims this seat as one his party need to win in order to gain a majority next time around, it was in reality a fairly "safe" LibDem seat, which has had a comfortable LibDem majority for nearly twenty years. It would have taken a huge (and unrealistic) swing for the Conservatives to gain this seat from the LibDems. Both LibDems and the Conservatives are in government, and Labour are the official opposition; therefore it would be reasonable to expect for Labour to benefit from the drain in Con/LibDem support. But, as I said, UKIP's support came from disaffected Conservatives, LibDems, and most significantly, previously disconnected voters. The fact that UKIP is attracting the attention of the previously-apathetic is the most significant contribution that UKIP has brought to the political establishment. UKIP may be dismissed as a "protest vote", but it is attracted voters who have never voted before, let alone for the other three main parties. And it is this that the three main parties have no answer to.
In this sense, it makes UKIP a potential game-changer.
To assume that UKIP's surge in Eastleigh was just a "protest vote", and therefore not significant, is to fatally misunderstand what has happened to British politics in the last two years.
I've spoken before about UKIP's appeal, and see that UKIP has found a "wedge" in the political spectrum. Until the Coalition government, UKIP's popularity was restricted to European elections, and to a lesser extent, local elections. But that has changed since then, most dramatically in the last year. UKIP has been able to shrewdly find a gap in the political spectrum. Nigel Farage correctly says that UKIP talk about issues that the other three refuse to discuss. It is this point that makes UKIP much more than a simple protest vote, and more of a party taking advantage of the failings of the established parties.
Now would be a good time to remember how British politics has adapted over the decades, and what brought about those changes. In the 19th century, Westminster was a two party system: the Tories (Conservatives today) and the Whigs (LibDems today). When the vote was extended in the late 19th century to all men of working age, it did not take long for the political system to adapt to the change. The ILP (Labour today) was formed at the turn of the 20th century. For about thirty years (up to the Great Depression) there was effectively a three party system, which saw the Liberal vote gradually ground down to insignificance by Labour. There was a new two party system between Labour and the Conservatives between the Second World War and the end of the Cold War. The LibDems (reformed Liberals) began to recapture their significance from the 1990s onward, with a reconstituted three party system culminating in the 2010 election that saw in the Conservative-LibDem Coalition.
So British politics is not as creaking and immobile as feared; it just takes longer for change to work through the political system. Politics is about dialectic: having an established point of view (thesis) which is challenged by something else (antithesis), resulting in a compromise and new consensus (synthesis). This is how politics changes to circumstances.
UKIPs rise since 2010 is therefore a natural part of this process of change in politics. UKIP is following this political tradition of challenging the established point of view. Because the three main parties are (to a greater or lesser extent) pro-EU and struggle to have a clear immigration policy, UKIP naturally fills the void left behind. It will continue to fill this void, and hold a clear-cut and defined role in British politics as long as the three main parties fail to decisively deal with these issues. This is just how politics works. Until the established parties (representing the "thesis") can deal with UKIP (representing the "antithesis"), there can be no resolution ("synthesis") leading to a new kind of politics.
In other words, UKIPs rise is a natural consequence of the failings that developed from the complacency of the three established parties.
UKIP is more than a simple "protest vote": it is a protest against all the established parties, and the beginning of a new kind of British politics. Eastleigh may well represent the end of a three party system and start of an unprecedented four party system in the UK.
Of course, that doesn't mean that UKIP can become the next government in the UK. A much better comparison is how the LibDems started the 1990s from a very low base, and gradually built up their grassroots so that they had more than forty MPs by the 1997 election, and nearly sixty by 2010. UKIP, like the other three established parties (in particular the Conservatives), is popular across the country, but mainly in England. It is not restricted by region; the LibDems in the 1990's still had much of their support concentrated in the South West, however. UKIP doesn't have that problem; it is almost as strong in the North Of England as the South. For this reason, it is a potential headache even for Labour, let alone the Conservatives.
This is what I mean by a new four party system effectively being created during this parliament. UKIP's appeal is to two main types of voters - the disaffected traditional Tory, and a more working-class appeal to core "values" - fear against immigration, jobs, crime, and so on. UKIP is looking more Thatcherite than Cameron's supposed "neo-Thatcherite" government. Nigel Farage knows this, and this is where he draws the appeal from - to a more clear-cut, simpler politics that Thatcher adhered to, which got her the respect of a section of the upper working class and lower middle class. This explains why the "Daily Mail" and "The Sun" are fans of Farage. They know who reads their papers, and so does Farage.
Cameron's clan have forgotten this; by copying Blair's metropolitan socially-liberal obsession with the "middle class suburbanite", he, like Blair, has taken the working classes for granted. It didn't take long for this to have an effect. Now that the economy has tanked and the three main parties still appeared the same, the time was ripe for someone to fill the void. Nigel Farage and UKIP have taken it.
And for the three main parties, UKIP really has thrown the cat amongst the pigeons. The trend for UKIP is only going to be up, as psychological momentum feeds on itself. Now that UKIP has become so close to winning a seat in Westminster, it makes it all the more likely the next time a by-election comes around; more and more voters will think "why not vote UKIP?". Looking ahead to 2015, some analysts argue that UKIP's vote will largely fall away to the main three parties. To an extent, this is possible, but at the same time, 2010 is also an argument against this assumption. Analysts said much the same of the LibDems prior to the 2010 election; even though they did not make a significant increase in the number of their seats, they did indirectly bring about a hung parliament, by sucking away votes from the other two. And then the LibDems became part of the government.
So UKIP makes a hung parliament a very real possibility in 2015, as they suck away votes from the other three (although the Conservatives will be the worst to lose out), as well as previously disconnected voters brought into participation by UKIP. The effect that UKIP could have on seats across the country is difficult to assess, and very hard for analysts to predict due to the broad social spectrum of UKIP-supporting voters. In 2015, you could see some areas in Tory heartlands where the Conservative vote is split by UKIP, resulting in a LibDem or Labour MP. In some Northern towns, former Labour supporters (as well as Tories) could switch to UKIP, resulting in UKIP or LibDem MP. That could then result in some very bizarre results in some seats, and a potentially-permanent muddying of the waters.
All things considered, Labour are still more than likely to be the largest party, though another hung parliament a real possibility, even probability. The LibDem vote, due to the chaotic effect of UKIP, may well leave them less badly damaged than previously thought: perhaps their MPs numbers' cut by around half. I would be surprised if UKIP didn't get at least a small clutch of MPs, perhaps even into double figures, with the Conservatives somewhere in the high-two-hundreds mark.
Where that would leave British politics is another question.
UKIP in 2015 could well turn the political establishment on its head.