UKIP hopes for historic by-election win in Clacton

Nigel Farage and Douglas Carswell Douglas Carswell left the Conservatives to join UKIP

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Polls have closed for by-elections in Essex and Greater Manchester, which will be seen as key tests of public opinion ahead of the general election.

In Clacton, the UK Independence Party is hoping the former Conservative Douglas Carswell will be voted back in, as the first MP elected for UKIP.

The Eurosceptic party also hopes for gains in Heywood and Middleton to show it can challenge Labour in the North.

The results are expected in the early hours of Friday morning.

Mr Carswell, a Conservative MP since 2005, defected to UKIP in August, saying he did not believe Prime Minister David Cameron was "serious about the change we need" in Europe. He also resigned as an MP - triggering the by-election.

UKIP leader Nigel Farage is hoping the surprise defection will deliver his party an historic first Westminster victory - although the former Conservative MP Bob Spink briefly represented the party in 2008 before standing as an independent in 2010.

Conservative Communities Secretary Eric Pickles appeared to admit UKIP was likely to beat his party in Clacton, saying on BBC One's Question Time: "I live in optimistic hope that a Conservative will be returned tonight, but I fear I will be disappointed."

UKIP tanks

Mr Carswell won the seat for the Conservatives in 2010 with 53% of the vote, with Labour on 25%. The Lib Dems came third, followed by the British National Party, Tendring First, Green Party and an independent candidate.

David Cameron and Giles Watling in Clacton David Cameron has been on the campaign trail in Clacton

Now standing for UKIP, he faces Andy Graham of the Liberal Democrats, Howling Laud Hope of the Official Monster Raving Loony Party, independent candidates Bruce Francis Sizer and Charlotte Rose, Chris Southall of the Green Party, Conservative candidate Giles Watling, and Labour's Tim Young.

Polls suggest Mr Carswell will keep the seat and deliver UKIP its first Westminster victory. Both the prime minister and Labour leader Ed Miliband have been on the campaign trail in the seaside town in an effort to boost their own candidates' chances.

Mr Farage has also warned that his party is not just a threat to the Conservatives, and is "tearing vast chunks" out of the Labour vote in the north of England and Wales.

Five candidates are vying for the Heywood and Middleton seat, which had been held by Labour MP Jim Dobbin until his death last month.

Ed Miliband on the campaign trail in Middleton Ed Miliband will be hoping to keep Heywood and Middleton in Labour hands

It has been a Labour seat since its creation in 1983 - but Mr Farage has warned Labour that he is parking his "tanks" on its "lawn".

Mr Dobbin had represented Heywood and Middleton since 1997. At the 2010 general election, he took the seat for Labour with a majority of 5,971 and just over 40% of the vote. The Conservatives were second, followed by the Lib Dems, BNP, UKIP and an independent.

In the by-election Labour candidate Liz McInnes faces John Bickley of UKIP, Conservative Iain Gartside, Abi Jackson of the Green Party and Liberal Democrat Anthony Smith.

Full details of the results as they come in - and the reaction - will be on the BBC News website and the BBC News Channel throughout the night. There will be a by-election special on BBC One with Andrew Neil from 00:20 BST on Friday.

UKIP support map

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