Last updated: May 3, 2013 4:17 pm

Ukip’s victory will make all British political parties nervous

Role of Nigel Farage’s party is still more psychological than electoral

Although most of the results are yet to come in, Thursday’s local elections in England seem to offer none of the main political parties much ground for euphoria. The insurgent populists of the UK Independence party were the winners.

Thirty-four authorities, mainly county councils, held votes for the first time since 2009, when the Conservatives routed the then governing Labour party. Some rolling back of those gains was likely, and it transpired.

England’s counties are the Conservatives’ base, but the party looks likely to shed hundreds of council seats to Labour and Ukip, whose stunning performance in Lincolnshire has deprived the Tories of control of that council. With 32 of the 34 authorities having declared, the Conservative party has made a net loss of 247 seats.

The final results may be bad enough to stem the run of political form that David Cameron, the prime minister, has enjoyed this spring. He at least has the excuse of being a midterm incumbent.

Labour, as the main opposition party, should profit more than any other party from popular resentment towards the government. The results so far, however, point to a healthy rather than earth-shattering performance.

In a parliamentary by-election in South Shields, held on the same night, Labour won but with a much diminished majority. Ukip, again, was the story, finishing runner-up.

In council seats, too, it is showing the potential to erode Labour’s monopoly on parts of the north. Ed Miliband, the Labour leader, will be anxious to see whether his party makes substantial gains in the south of England, where it has become a marginal force.

That South Shields election yielded a real trauma for the Liberal Democrats, who co-govern with the Tories in Westminster. The party finished seventh, losing its deposit and only narrowly pipping the Monster Raving Loony party.

Its wider performance was not quite as bad as that, and it managed to retain many threatened council seats, including one in the heart of the Sheffield Hallam parliamentary constituency, represented by Nick Clegg, the deputy prime minister.

Still, the Lib Dems’ status as the third party of British politics looks less secure than it did, thanks to Ukip.

Only Nigel Farage, then, can feel unequivocally thrilled with his night’s work. The Ukip leader looks at an electoral map and sees that he is rampant in places far removed economically and culturally from the southern commuter belt previously thought to be his party’s comfort zone. It is taking votes from all the main parties, especially the Conservatives.

Their attention, and that of the media, is worth as much to Ukip as its tangible electoral gains, lending them an impression of clout and seriousness.

Ukip’s role in British politics is still more psychological than psephological – they drag other parties’ rightward. Its great electoral triumph may have to wait a year for the European parliament elections, which they could well win.

If they do, what is currently nervousness about Ukip among the mainstream parties could become pandemonium.

janan.ganesh@ft.com

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