LIKE a neat pile of spoiled ballot papers, the rhetorical questions accumulate.

A Westminster system in crisis? A body politic in decay? An echo of the dissent being heard all across Europe? Just what has Ukip achieved, exactly, in the heartlands of England?

A small detail, to begin with. Party loyalties, like voting itself, no longer count for much with the voters who have restored a smirk to the face of Nigel Farage. A large part of the minority who could be bothered to vote did not define themselves with traditional labels. The Coalition and its opponents can argue themselves blue or pink in the face: the perception that "they're all the same" runs very deep, with reason.

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The voters who have given council seats to dozens of Mr Farage's motley crew are not troubled, either, by the issue of racism. No-one is being duped. Ukip's numerous little problems with rank prejudice have been widely reported. If anything, a supposed protest vote has about it an air of sheer defiance. The 25% of voters (from an ignoble 36% or so) turning to the anti-immigrant party have said, simply, that they don't care what anyone thinks. So whose crisis is this? Given that the main Westminster parties don't much care about local government or the European Parliament, whatever they might pretend, every comment from below the Border has to be understood in terms of the next General Election. Scotland's referendum has not yet begun to impinge on that chatter. It might be futile to extrapolate from this week's polls to what Westminster regards as the main event but the temptation is impossible to avoid. For Labour, the Tories and the Liberal Democrats, all the news is grim.

Labour, on this showing, will not form a government on its own behalf in 2015. Is anyone still surprised? With less than a year remaining, there are few signs that Ed Miliband is being taken seriously. Taking comfort from results in multicultural London might prove consoling in Islington, but it fails to impress in the English north. A lot of talk about a deal with the LibDems, and how to make such an arrangement seem other than grubby, will ensue.

Should it bother you, that would amount to an error for Labour, one liable to cost as many votes as it gains. The detestation for Nick Clegg (credit where credit's due) has been a singular feature of these elections. At the time of writing, LibDem losses in local government, once the party's speciality, are almost as great as those suffered by the Conservatives. Mr Clegg has only one question to answer: how much worse can it get?

An arrangement with a party held in such contempt would be daft. At Westminster, however, that's not how the world is viewed. Should Labour be in need, and should Mr Clegg be shuffled off to make room for Vince Cable, the Blairite rump would agitate furiously for one of their cherished "realignments". And there would be hell to pay.

David Cameron has an equivalent problem. Already his backbenchers are queuing up to demand an accommodation with Ukip. Like a great many right-wing voters, they do not regard the LibDems as any sort of asset. Mr Clegg's attempts to hold a party line over Europe and immigration simply incite "natural" Conservatives to argue that they have chosen the wrong allies. Mr Farage has the makings of a Commons majority in his gift, at least in terms of votes. And he speaks the language that Tories understand.

Mr Cameron is likely to find Ukip's price too high, but his bargaining position has been eroded badly. The game of trying to work out who might be hurt most by Mr Farage and his followers in supposed marginals has already begun. It is a sign of desperation among all concerned. Nevertheless, on the Tory back benches the solution seems simple enough: give the people and the party what they want. The Prime Minister's ability to resist such a demand is seriously in doubt. Douglas Alexander, Labour's election "strategist", maintains that the next election can still be won if his party takes "the right steps". What might those be? Mr Miliband's cost-of-living campaign has hardly ignited the passions of the English electorate. If the leader happens to be a name in a few households it is for all the wrong reasons. If the Tories dance to Mr Farage's tunes and move further to the right, meanwhile, how does Labour respond?

One reading of the results reported says, after all, that the party cannot take "the working class vote" for granted. It seems, indeed, that candidates remotely of the left are a minority interest among England's voters. Labour has not picked up significant support from disaffected former LibDem supporters. Instead, it has witnessed its own flight to Ukip. "Right steps" will be more than just a figure of speech for Mr Miliband.

All of this has consequences beyond England, obviously enough. Henceforth, the expression "Better Together" will fully merit a question. With what? With whom? The Ukip upheaval in England has made it clear, if there was ever serious doubt, that political cultures in these islands have diverged fundamentally. Arguments over civic virtues, who has them or lacks them, cannot compete with the electoral facts.

Ukip can't be explained away, meanwhile, with the usual patter from political operators. Mockery only lends the party strength, it seems.

The Westminster parties have survived for decades in England thanks only to the absence of alternatives. If even a ramshackle troupe of the kind led by Mr Farage can cause such mayhem, you can only wonder what an organised and coherent insurgency might achieve.

As things stand, one-quarter of those voting in England have given credibility to an unpleasant phenomenon. Before those main parties begin to puzzle out ways to win those voters back, they need to think hard about the course they might be adopting. The democratic right of people to be heard does not justify pandering. Besides, as the Tories should already know, any attempt to compete with Mr Farage is a mug's game. First he takes the credit, then the votes.

If the Westminster parties have any sense, they will begin, belatedly, to talk about what Ukip stands for beyond an obsession with immigration. There are few signs that those who gave the party its triumphs this week truly understand just how divisive a government under the influence of Mr Farage would be. The English local elections were fair warning: Ukip needs to be opposed, not absorbed.

Mr Miliband, for one, reckons he can win back voters from Ukip over the next year. He means to show that he can "change lives for the better". You can only wonder how that is to be achieved, and why Labour's leader has waited so long. You might also wonder where that scheme leaves the rest of us.

Another political landscape will be altered come September. Mr Farage will play only a peripheral part in that process. In more ways than one, the fact speaks for itself.