UKIP 'within a whisker' of Labour in Heywood and Middleton seat

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Media captionLiz McInnes said the result showed people had given their backing to Ed Miliband's plans for the NHS

There were huge sighs of relief amid the cheers as Labour clinched a victory that had always been theirs to lose.

A safe Labour seat since it was created in 1983, the sudden death of Jim Dobbin had given the UK Independence Party an unexpected opportunity to test the power of its message in the North West.

It is heartland seats like Heywood and Middleton, with a traditional working class population, which will be the foundation for any Labour win at next May's General Election - but this result will have sent shivers down the spine of the party hierarchy.

A 6,000 majority from 2010 was demolished.

'Spectacular turnaround'

A grinning band of UKIP activists proudly demanded a recount before they finally went down by just 617 votes.

In 2010, they were 17,000 votes behind Labour. The turnaround has been spectacular.

Back in May UKIP secured its first four councillors in Greater Manchester and three MEPs. Now they have come within a whisker of their first North West MP.

For UKIP, unpredictable by-election or not, this was a huge result.

Their candidate John Bickley said he was taken aback by the positive response he had received on the streets and claimed to have found a population "completely disillusioned" with the status quo.

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Image caption UKIP's John Bickley said people were frustrated by immigration and a lack of jobs

Speak to people in this constituency, he said, and they will tell you they are frustrated by immigration and a lack of job opportunities; while many feel let down by the local authority which they say failed to prevent the abuse of young girls in the Rochdale grooming scandal.

UKIP's opponents accused the party of running a negative and divisive campaign, but UKIP said its message chimed with the feelings of a local electorate which had been badly led down.

A turnout of just 36% was not a ringing endorsement of any of the parties. The Conservatives, who came second last time, fell to third with just 12% of the vote. The Lib Dems appeared overjoyed not to have lost their deposit.

This by-election will be viewed as an indication that UKIP is starting to make in-roads with Labour's core vote, the people who had always backed the party and never thought to change.

It was a test of whether UKIP could take votes from Labour in the north as it has from the Tories in the south, and on this evidence there will be some worried Labour MPs this morning.

In her acceptance speech the new MP, Liz McInnes, said the people of Heywood and Middleton had "rejected a Tory government that only stands up for a privileged few".

Many also rejected her party in favour of the new kid in town.

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