Local election analysis: What does the rise of Ukip mean?

Ukip's performance in the local elections is extraordinary. Even at this early stage, the party has already beaten the (admittedly problematic) benchmark set by respected polling experts Rallings and Thrasher. It is doing very well indeed.

First, a caveat: they are still not winning anything. Their South Shields by-election result is impressive, but nowhere near enough to get them an MP. They are not taking control of councils. Ukip suffer from the traditional problem of small parties in British politics: the first-past-the-post system means groups with spread-out support have a hard time breaking through. Come in second place and it just doesn't matter how many votes you got.

But whichever way you look at it, Ukip's tally is undeniably impressive.

They continue to take votes from their natural home – irritated Tory voters. Three quarters of the party's gains so far have come at the cost of the Conservatives. In Gloucestershire and Lincolnshire, the Tories lost their councils to 'no overall control' (NOC). In places like Essex, where they lost 18 seats and Ukip won nine, or Hampshire, where Ukip won ten, the Tories have held on by their fingernails.

Can a policy shift to the right save them? It doesn't look like it. David Cameron has been told for years by his backbenchers that he needed to offer a referendum on the EU to beat off the Ukip threat. When he finally did it only seems to have added fuel to the Ukip fire. It's hard to see how further shifts to the right will make much difference. On the other hand, the Ukip surge shows the appeal of an uncomplicated right-wing vision for the country which Cameron would be unwise to ignore. The Tories just don't know how to deal with Ukip and it's hard to blame them.

But today's results show Ukip is not just a problem for the Tories. Labour just realised the appeal of the party among its core supporters. While the party projects an unashamedly middle class image, its anti-immigration, plain-speaking populism is proving attractive to working class voters too. In wards won by the Tories in 2009, Ukip were up 21 at the time of writing. In wards won by Labour in 2009, they were up 15. The Ukip effect may be reduced, but it is notable.

In South Shields, the safe Labour seat departed by David Miliband, Ukip came second, getting 24.21% of the vote and pushing the Tories into third. They are proving what Ed Miliband is failing to prove: that the party has an appeal outside of its traditional strongholds.

Ukip's strong performance against Labour offers some explanation for why a rightward shift from the Tories doesn't seem to be stopping their rise. The public rarely look at politics in terms of left and right. Instead, Ukip is benefitting from an anti-politics, anti-establishment mood, especially with the Liberal Democrats no longer able to hoover up those votes. The party has subtly meld its EU-only focus, which is not at the top of voter's concerns, with immigration, which is at number two, after the economy. The party has done an especially effective job capitalising on concerns about an influx of Bulgarians and Romanians when the entrance restrictions are lifted at the end of the year.

But Ukip have a major problem: general elections kill protest votes. Voters instinctively switch to tactical voting when it comes to the battle for Downing Street. The Tories will deploy a major 'Vote Farage, Get Miliband' message in 2015 which should drive many Conservative voters back to the fold. Ukip's ability to survive that shift will answer a vital question in modern British politics: Just how severe is the anti-establishment mood in the country? Is it just something which only makes itself known during by-elections and local polls? Or are some voters so sick of the main parties they will throw in their lot with fringe candidates even for a general election? Just how much do voters hate the mainstream parties? Has it come to the point where they will refuse to vote for them at all?

A major factor in this battle will be whether the party can dig in at a local level, like the Liberal Democrats have done. They need to keep their ground operations well oiled and ready for battle in 2015. There is a media angle as well. They need to retain their coverage, which is well above what a party of their size would expect, and hope they don't fall apart when they get subjected to harsher scrutiny closer to the elections. There can be no more Nazi salutes which were really a man reaching for his phone while "imitating a pot plant". There can be no more party leaders who haven't read their own manifesto. For local elections, that sort of amateurishness is evidently considered endearing by the British public. The same will presumably not hold true when it' a question of who gets the keys to No.10.

It is very unlikely any of this will translate to actual MPs in Westminster. Ukip's support is too spread out for it to be able to credibly challenge many incumbents. Unlike the Greens in Brighton, there are few areas which they can focus on. The more important factor is: how will the votes lost to Ukip affect the race between the mainstream parties?

This has a distinct effect on Labour but the Tories would remain the main casualties. The split in the right-wing vote created by Ukip could prove vital in 2015. In 2010, for instance, when Ukip polled just three per cent of the vote, it still saved some Labour skins. Labour ministers Ed Balls, John Denham, Phil Woolas and Ian Austin all won their seats with fewer votes than Ukip won. If those Kippers had supported the Tories, they could have kicked out a Labour MP.

This type of thinking is dependent on a highly questionable assumption however: that Ukip supporters would all vote Tory if they were to move away from the party. That's not necessarily true. Some of them could vote for other parties – some will not vote at all. Ukip support is not a box which can be moved from one party to another, just like that. It is a complex thing dependent on several factors, not least of all the mercurial X-factor of 'anti-politics'.

The bigger effect Ukip is likely to have comes not in electoral success but in shifting the terms of debate. As Nigel Farage himself admits, its effect on the Tories is "psychological not numerical". His success bolsters the confidence of Tory backbenchers and encourages the populist strategy of Australian election master Lynton Crosby. It causes a higher degree of focus on hot-topic right wing concerns, like welfare and immigration.

That's not just true to the Tories – it affects all three parties. For Labour, today's result will cement the impression of a right wing consensus in the country. The idea that the heart of England beats on the right and Labour must move to the centre to accommodate it has long been accepted by Westminster and Fleet Street. It was the lesson Tony Blair and Gordon Brown took from a decade of Thatcherism. Up until now Miliband has been convinced the political centre is moving to the left – against the advice of New Labour grandees and commentators. Today's results will further undermine his vision.