Only one party still has room for manoeuvre after Rochester and Strood

Politicians and pundits are so taken up by the news cycle they're forgetting what the headline story about the Ukip by-election triumph in Rochester and Strood really means.

Namely, that the Conservatives have no answer to the challenge posed by Nigel Farage that doesn't involve doing their best to out-Ukip Ukip.

Whether in putting forward immigration policies so extreme they are instantly dismissed for being unrealistic, or in promising to deliver a referendum on Europe where Ukip never can, the Tory approach to Farage has consistently been to try and marginalise him.

It's not working. In Rochester the vote share of the three mainstream parties fell by a combined total of 32.48%.

This is a calamity for the establishment. It continues Ukip's earthquake. But it has already been 'priced into the market', as if it was always going to be this way.

It was not. During the Conservative party conference the anger at Mark Reckless' defection far exceeded that which met the oddball Douglas Carswell's crossing the floor. Tory MPs spoke eagerly about their determination to teach Reckless a lesson.

Now the result is in it is they who are being taught a lesson, but it is not one the party is yet heeding.

Instead both William Hague and Douglas Alexander have sought to return voters' minds to the idea that the next general election is a presidential one.

Unable to guarantee they will ever be likely to have enough MPs to form a government in their own right, Labour and the Conservatives are going to make the May 7th 2015 contest one about leadership.

Here's Hague on the Today programme:

"It was still a small majority for Ukip, a terrible result for the Labour party. We have to get the message across that Ed Miliband is trying to sneak into Downing Street on the back of a strong Ukip performance, that’s all he’s got left going for him. In a general election, people need to vote Conservative.

Alexander repeated the message about this choice – surprisingly, because this is ground on which the Tories feel they are stronger than Labour. But he then offered a more realistic assessment of the state of play:

"David Cameron threw the kitchen sink at this seat and lost, but the truth is this by-election… sends pretty strong messages to the mainstream parties next May. The party that will win is the one that answers the undoubted anger and sense of alienation that voters feel today.

"The principal fuel in Ukip's tank is more anti-politics than even anti-Europeanism… these are trends that have built up over decades rather than overnight and you have to defeat that with practical answers. that has to be done street-by-street, doorstep-by-doorstep, community-by-community. I don't think it's too late."

By-elections, it's clear, aren't general elections. And the Tory message about 'vote Farage get Miliband' is going to be much more relevant in 2015 than it is in this contest.

Farage senses this; it's why in his own media appearances this morning he's been insisting that Ukip voters ignore the system and vote Ukip because they mean it. He is probably right, to a degree – but protest votes always, always shrivel when it comes to the question of who actually runs the country.

The problem is we don't know exactly how much shrivelling is going to take place. The deep-seated, slow-burning rage which the electorate feels is not going away in a hurry.

Farage is right about next year being hard to predict. In Westminster, top aides are saying it is harder to work out what will happen than at any time since the early 1980s.

What now follows is the real test for the two parties whose dominance in parliament, unchallenged for a century, is now fracturing.

The early indications are that Labour and the Conservatives are taking very different approaches to what lies ahead.

The Tories have a clear Ukip strategy. It is a firm, decisive, calculated gamble that when push comes to shove those flirting with Ukip will return to the fold when it really counts.

Labour faces a different set of dilemmas. As recent polling from Stockton South shows – a Tory-held seat which Labour really must win in order for Miliband to get into Downing Street – the Conservatives are maintaining a slim lead, apparently down to the 19% of voters who say they're backing Ukip. Across the north of England the Ukip presence threatens to be deeply damaging.

Ukip supporters need to be cultivated, not ridiculed. This is why Miliband got so worked up over that tweet from Emily Thornberry yesterday.

"He didn't hold back in making clear how angry he was this would lead to widespread misinterpretation," Alexander explained.

"The alienation and anger I'm describing wasn't caused by any tweet, it's been caused by much longer-term trends. Political parties cannot take any voter, community or class for granted. Anyone who wants to stand for election next May has to start with a fundamental and deep respect for the voters, to whom we're asking for support."

The Conservatives talk about the 2015 general election as being like landing a jumbo jet: it takes a very long approach and requires that the pilot holds his nerve throughout. Whether it works or not, the Tory strategy remains stable even in the face of by-election turbulence.

Labour is all over the place. Its leader's shaky, inconsistent performance does not help. Nor does the attitude reflected in Thornberry's indisciplined tweet. Yet there are those in the party who understand that all is still to play for.

Of all the 'known unknowns' about May 7th 2015, the biggest is not Ukip. It is the Labour party. How it shapes its strategy, and its relative success in connecting with the millions of voters it shed in the 2005 and 2010 general elections, could yet prove decisive.

Rochester and Strood teaches us that Cameron, Farage and even Nick Clegg now have relatively little room for manoeuvre. Miliband, on the other hand, still has choices aplenty.

His party knows they have yet to be made. No wonder they're feeling so jittery right now.