The election of Douglas Carswell and the impressive performance of UKIP in Heywood and Middleton raises many questions - most importantly, however, is this: what does UKIP stand for?
UKIP has become the "alternative alternative", a new "none of the above", anti-establishment party that takes populist positions and rails against the corrupt system, moral redundancy of UK democracy, etc.
However, do UKIP voters know what they're actually voting for? Do they really understand the nature of UKIP? Do they grasp the reality that David Cameron's "fruitcakes, loonies and closet racists", while unkind and unprofessional, pointed to a deep truth about the character of that party?
It is unsurprising that Clacton-on-Sea would return Douglas Carswell as its MP. What is more worrying is the number of Labour and Liberal Democrat voters willing to take a chance on UKIP. On one level this is understandable - Lib Dem voters for example have often consisted of people who simply lend us support to keep out on or the other of the big two parties, and perhaps now UKIP have taken on that role. But UKIP are no friends of the working class people whose votes they are increasingly attracting.
I met a UKIP voter on the train last week. "I've voted Labour all my life, I'm a true socialist" she explained. "But I'm never voting Labour now, not after what they've done. I'm voting UKIP - just to spite them." So when I asked what Labour had done that's so offended her, the answer was "well, it's not one thing, you know. This and that. But I can't vote for Miliband, he's useless." I didn't doubt her socialism, but I do doubt whether it would be in her interests to vote UKIP.
Let's start with looking at what the hero of the hour, Douglas Carswell, actually believes. He, as a respectable former Tory MP, is no "fruitcake" or "loony".
Carswell is an arch-Thatcherite. As indeed is his new leader, Nigel Farage, who boasted that he is the only politician keeping Thatcherism alive. Carswell co-founded the Cornerstone Group within the Conservative Party, whose values are Faith, Flag and Family. By faith it means the Christian faith, and by Christian faith it means the Church of England. The nationalism and devotion to the supposed "family values" of the Victorian era speak for themselves. He has an anti-secular agenda. He lives in a different era, one in which religious privilege is enshrined within the national psyche. A man of the working people he is not.
Carswell is opposed to equality, and in particular same-sex marriage. Not only this, he has opposed other laws attempting to outlaw discrimination based on sexual orientation.
He also strongly supports the "bedroom tax", has voted against schemes to help young unemployed people into work, has voted against the transfer of further powers to the Scottish parliament and seems to think that workers' rights are irrelevant. According to The Independent, he "has written that he would like to remove legal protections that prevent
employees from being fired by companies without following legal
disciplinary procedures. He would also scrap rules giving part time
workers the same rights to equal pensions and holiday as full time
employees." He also wants to repeal the Firearms Act, introduced after the Dunblane killings - just the kind of thing working people are looking to get behind.
And that's just Carswell, who actually has some very positive things to say on such matters as electoral reform.
This week Nigel Farage argued that HIV sufferers should not be allowed entry into Britain. (What he feels about Britons with illnesses choosing to live abroad is unknown). This kind of attitude towards immigration, and people with HIV/AIDS, is breathtaking in its ignorance. To then appear to suggest that HIV sufferers are in the same category as murderers was deeply insensitive at best, but not exactly untypical of a party whose elected representatives feel that gay people cause bad weather - or who invite the infamous B&B owners who feel they should be able to refuse to serve gay people to speak at their conference in support of "traditional marriage". If David Cameron has made this sort of remark, it would be a resignation issue. Not so for Nigel Farage, who just shrugs it all off.
If you're passionately committed to ending the UK's beneficial relationship with the EU, if you feel gay and lesbian people deserve fewer rights, if you are opposed to workers' rights, if you believe the bedroom tax is fair, if you feel a nation's immigration policies should discriminate against people with HIV, if you're a believer in keeping Margaret Thatcher's legacy alive - then vote UKIP.
The problem is that most UKIP supporters are not racist. They are not Thatcherites. They do not support laws that discriminate against homosexuals. They are not opposed to workers' rights. They do not feel the poorest in society should be penalised by the "bedroom tax". They are not "fruitcakes, loonies and closet racists". They are people who are disenfranchised, and understandably frustrated by the inability of the main parties to convince the public that they're on their side - something UKIP are currently able to tap into effectively.
But the failures of the major parties cannot be allowed to obscure the real nature of UKIP - a right-wing ultra-Thatcherite party opposed to socially progressive politics. For the most vulnerable in our society, they offer nothing but raw populism while actively supporting measures that would further reduce the living standards of the poorest. The challenge for the rest of us is convincing a large section of the public, who are largely disconnected from politics, that we're worth voting for - it's that failure to connect that plays directly into UKIP's hands.