Let’s keep a sense of proportion. UKIP has not won any by-elections; it has not even come close.
Anyone who has been around the Liberal Democrats for more than a few years will be well aware that even winning by-elections, not just doing respectably, is no guarantee of future general election success or even of holding the seats concerned.
What has been lost is the Liberal Democrats’ role as the natural repository of the protest vote. This was not a pointless or ignoble role – at times of voter discontent, voters expressed this by voting Liberal Democrat rather than for cranks or extremists, and the party acted as a sort of safety valve.
But since one cannot logically make a protest by voting for a party that is in government, protesters must look elsewhere, and an assortment of UKIP, the Greens, Respect, the BNP and various independents is sweeping up this vote. I’m not convinced this vote will stay with any of them for very long, since it never stayed long with the Liberal Democrats. Baths and open plugholes.
What the loss of the protest vote does show is that the Liberal Democrat core vote is alarmingly small. OK, no by-election during this parliament, apart from the peculiarity of Oldham East, has been in a constituency where the party might have done well but, even so, it ought to have done better than it did.
And since a party in government cannot chase protest votes, it must chase voters committed to what it stands for. At least the loss of the opportunity to exploit passing grievances in the belief that ‘we can win everywhere’ may force the party to do what it should have done years ago, and find and cultivate a core vote.