Dispatch from UKIP conference: Time for business to connect

The weekend's bombshells for the Conservative Party conference have set alight the debate over the future direction of that party's policy.

UKIP conference: First outing for Tory defector Mark Reckless (r) with Nigel Farage
UKIP conference: First outing for Tory defector Mark Reckless (r) with Nigel Farage

However, one of the key lessons from the weekend’s UKIP gathering at Doncaster Racecourse was not so much the skids it has put under the Tories, but the fact that this is a fast maturing party that is shaping policy at a pace.

Among the accusations levelled at UKIP is that it is a party of angry, ageing, white male xenophobes.

But UKIP’s outing at the races confounded that impression, as my colleague Mair Williams and I (the only two public affairs professionals in attendance from what I could tell) found out.

The age and gender profile of the delegates was reasonably diverse. The party also bridges the north-south divide. UKIP is also careful to present the fact that it has among its ‘people’s army’ non-white adherents.

I was lucky enough to share my cab to Doncaster station with Hull’s only UKIP councillor (who makes a living as a bailiff) and a Sikh party colleague from the fair city. On politics, they were both serious-minded and engaged.

Of course, the media tried to focus on the quirky types in the hall. All parties have their share of eccentrics and UKIP is no different. And the moment I lifted a pint to lips I was surrounded by camera crews thinking they’d captured on camera another beer-swilling Kipper.

But what is clear is that the party means business. Its charismatic leader is eyeing the balance of power after the 2015 general election. With two by-elections already in its sights, a further six Tory MPs on its target list of defectors, a UKIP caucus of 10 in the next Parliament would not only be a massive result for the party – it would have coalition-forming potential.

That’s why public affairs professionals need to connect with the party and take it seriously. Its policies on tax and spend (less of both unless you have a taste for Louboutin shoes), regulation (less of that too) and support for small businesses will be eyed with interest by Conservative manifesto writers.

And let’s be clear about this: some of these ideas could end up in a Conservative-UKIP coalition agreement post-GE2015.

UKIP has a plurality of votes in the country – the largest party with over 27 per cent at the European elections this year. The public affairs industry has got to quit sneering and start engaging.

Jon McLeod is public affairs chairman at Weber Shandwick

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