Public affairs experts react to UKIP's early local election gains

Early results from the local elections have shown gains for UKIP, with leader Nigel Farage this morning claiming his party will be "serious players" at the General Election in 2015.

Strong results: Nigel Farage's UKIP has made gains in the local elections
Strong results: Nigel Farage's UKIP has made gains in the local elections

But with more councils to announce the winners from yesterday’s vote, which had a turnout of around 36 per cent, and results from the European Elections not through till the weekend, just what can we make of the party’s success so far? 

PRWeek asked public affairs experts for their views...

Sean Kemp, senior consultant, Open Road

UKIP will be tempted to think these results mean media attacks don't matter. But they did wobble under fire and now face 12 months of scrutiny before much tougher elections. However, they have shown that the old-school spin handbook needs updating, too often other parties look and sound like they think political communications is the same as the mid-nineties with a bit of Twitter thrown in.

Labour's campaign looked messy, at times amateurish, and seemed to lack direction - do that next year and they won't be in power. The Conservatives were far more professional. Lib Dem HQ will only care about one thing - how they did in seats like Sutton with Lib Dem MPs; for them the overall national picture is almost irrelevant. With these other three parties all having tough nights the big question now is whose MPs have the morale and discipline not to start briefing the papers.

Sean Worth, partner, Quiller Consultants

UKIP were always going to do well today, but there was one key question I was looking at: would the big anti-UKIP operations of the main parties stifle UKIP turnout, as planned, or only harden their core support? There's now a very good case to make for the latter. We should be wary, however, of translating that to the General Election, when attack and undermine tactics deliver a far greater premium. 

 This, and the wider political situation, to me mean the main party leaders will not be as worried as the media might make out by today's results. David Cameron is seeing his poll figures brighten as the recovery progresses. Nick Clegg had lowered expectations hugely for today and it's too late for any real threat to his position. Ed Miliband expects the UKIP factor which ate into his numbers somewhat to do more damage to the Tories in the longer run.

From today, then, I would not expect the campaign focus of the parties to change hugely: the Tories will be talking about little other than the economy; Labour will push on with their consumerist cost-of-living focus and the Libs will be the only main party explicitly campaigning for another coalition.

Chris Rumfitt, founder, CRC Communications 

Although all results are not yet in, it seems the political earthquake that Nigel Farage predicted is underway. It’s not just the remarkable increase in local council seats the party has won that’s most interesting, it’s who they are winning it from.

It is becoming increasingly clear as the results roll in that UKIP are no longer just taking votes from the Conservatives – they are enticing Liberal Democrat and Labour voters too. This indicates a real turning point in UK politics and how the parties react over the next year will be telling.

While the Conservatives have been grappling with the UKIP effect for some time the other main parties have not, and how they rise to this new challenge over the will make great politics. One lesson from this year’s campaign is that overly attacking the party can backfire; the attacks on Nigel Farage only cemented the UKIP leader in the electorate’s minds as an anti-establishment figure.

Voters do love an underdog…

Simon Gentry, director, MWW

The UKIP result, if mirrored in the proportional European vote, creates huge issues for anyone trying to explain and win support for British interests in the European Parliament.  

Bitter experience has shown how difficult it is to work with people like UKIP and their fellow travellers in other far-right parties who refuse to engage in the process and whose sole response to attempts to discuss a particular directive is a denunciation of the institution itself.  

That combined with the Tory decision to leave the majority EPP Group, means that the UK's influence - and our ability as professionals to support British interests - is severely limited.  In practice, only half the UK’s MEPs can actually influence the course of legislation. You can’t blame the voters, of course, but you can blame a generation of craven politicians who can’t, or won’t, lead in the national interest.

Alex Deane, head of public affairs, Weber Shandwick

Farage's army has given all of the so-called "mainstream" parties a rather predictable kicking. The truth is that they *are* now mainstream but they'll fight hard to keep the outsider narrative going - it's served them well so far.

In Australia, John Howard destroyed a similar movement by co-opting some of their agenda and answering other bits with canny policies tailored to the issues One Nation raised - but in the UK we've all failed to do the same, leaving UKIP to exploit fertile and untilled political ground.

For the industry, it's created a gap for most agencies - especially in Brussels - on the UKIP knowledge base, which will now see an undignified scramble for recruitment at junior levels just as UKIP MEPs staff up offices from just the same narrow talent pool.

Farage must be delighted: the brickbats unwisely thrown at him by all of the other parties, and the media, just reinforced the perception of being outside the political class that he actively wants.

Andy Martin, director, PPS Group

Making a statement on the election results based only on local counts before the European results at the weekend is a little like calling a football result at half time. Risky at best. But there's no doubt that the only real winners are UKIP.

With over 4000 seats up for grabs - so far with just 100 for UKIP it isn't exactly an earthquake - but they scored well in many areas without campaigning hard. More interesting is the comprehensive failure by Labour to capitalise on an unpopular coalition - its unimaginable for the party of opposition to be losing control (see Swindon and Thurrock as a case in point) with London yet to properly report, its going to be an interesting weekend for politicos.

Sunday (and the Euro count) will see UKIP smiles turn to raucous joy with proportional representation seeing vote share meaning something for a change. However, I firmly believe this is a 'plague on all your houses' to the mainstream parties.

Jim Dickson, director, politics, Four Communications 

With only a third of town halls declared overnight and no European results until Sunday it may be too early to call this set of elections. But already a discernible narrative is emerging - the UKIP insurgency is reaching fresh territory and the story is largely one of frustration for the 3 main parties.

Nigel Farage's party has made a first real local government breakthrough in Labour heartlands taking votes and seats from in Sunderland and Rotherham to add to strong results which came more predictably in Essex and the West Midlands.

London however has stood apart with Labour performing as the main national opposition party needs to a year ahead of a General election, taking town halls from the Tories in Croydon, Hammersmith & Fulham and from no overall control in Merton and Redbridge. With the Lib Dem vote collapsing Conservative success in wining Kingston back will be a small consolation. 

Stand by for UKIP seat gains on Sunday night at the European elections and a post mortem for the other three parties.

Tom Curtin, CEO, Curtin&Co

UKIP was out to show that last year's breakthrough was not a one-off, and it’s safe to say they've proved their point so far. At local level, the party are now well and truly on the political map, doing enough to tip a number of traditionally Tory councils into no overall control.

The Lib Dem vote has held up better than many expected though the predicted losses are there to see. The scalp of the night so far has to go to Labour's win in Conservative forerunner Council Hammersmith.

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