Public affairs needs to get UKIP and the party needs to do as well as be

UKIP's success in the recent elections means it must get serious quickly and public affairs agencies must be hot on its tail.

Alex Deane is head of public affairs at Weber Shandwick
Alex Deane is head of public affairs at Weber Shandwick

The backing UKIP received in the local and European elections causes problems for both the party political mainstream and public affairs.

For the Conservative Party, UKIP’s rise poses something approaching an existential question. Lord Ashcroft’s seat-by-seat polling predicts the Tories will lose 83 seats at the next election on current form, something that makes my own more modest prediction of a net loss of around 60 seats look positively optimistic.

The political narrative of our age is simple: Liberal Democrats down, uniting the left; UKIP up, dividing the right. For all the talk of UKIP’s appeal across the political spectrum (which larg­ely amounts to the fact it is more likely to do well in the North among the working class than Tories), the effect will be that seats that otherwise might be won by the Conservatives won’t be.

UKIP doesn’t need to win a single seat at Westminster to cost the Tories many constituencies in which they’re the current incumbents. Indeed, on current form many of the seats won by the Tories in 2010 are, in my view, likely to be lost straight back to Labour and MPs who worked for ten years to get into Parliament will be ejected after five.

For our industry, the election has created a significant 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 precisely the same, rather narrow talent pool.

I understand that, with 24 MEPs now in Parliament, UKIP has about 100 unfilled staffer positions (far more than any UK political party could fill with ease), which it will seek to recruit into quickly.

Simultaneously, those whose clients need to understand the strategies, views and personalities in the new largest bloc of UK representatives in the European Parliament will be seeking to hire the twentysomethings of Young Independence (UKIP’s youth wing), whose currency has rocketed.

While the campaigning they’ve done, and attacks they’ve endured, mean that these UKIP warriors are rather more experienced and hardened than one might imagine, there is undoubtedly a challenge – both for these staffers and for their elected masters – in PR delivery terms.

A young party often makes disproportionately more clangers and cock-ups, more fallings-out and upsets. So far UKIP’s ‘anti-political’ image has served to excuse some of its lack of discipline, but expectations will have been raised by success and prominence.

Expect the party to fight hard with the politics of grievance to keep the outsider narrative going, guided by the able and newly elected MEP and director of comms Patrick O’Flynn.

However, in policy terms it will not be enough simply to ‘be’ – it must now ‘do’ – and no matter how reluctant a political cadre it might claim to be, it will need to begin acting like one, fast, if 2014 is not to be the true high point of UKIP’s political existence.

Alex Deane is head of public affairs at Weber Shandwick

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